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    If At First You Don't Succeed... Don't Try Again!

    By Dwight L. Morris
    May 9, 1996

    While the old adage "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" may be good advice in general, when it comes to running for a House seat, practice definitely does not make perfect. Fifty-one candidates who lost House races in 1992 decided to try their luck again in 1994; 45 of them lost.

    In fact, over the past three election cycles, most never-say-die candidates have faired much like Texas Republican Donna Peterson, a West Point graduate who has now made four equally unsuccessful tries for the 2nd District seat. In 1990, armed with only $115,984, Peterson took 44 percent of the vote against Democratic Rep. Charles Wilson. Emboldened by her apparent success, Peterson came back two years later with a budget of $340,735; nevertheless, the additional $224,751 brought her an identical 44 percent of the vote. Figuring that the third time would surely be the charm, Peterson tried again to oust Wilson in 1994; with a much reduced treasury of $121,010, she received 43 percent of the vote. Following Wilson's decision not to seek reelection, Peterson geared up for yet another shot at the brass ring this year, but after watching her go down in flames in three successive campaigns, Republican voters opted not to give her a fourth chance.

    Clearly part of Peterson's problem was money. While she managed to throw a combined total of $461,745 into her three contests with Wilson, the incumbent answered by spending a total of $2,708,215. However, as the 1994 rematches illustrate, having rejected a candidate once, voters are not likely to rethink their original assessment in subsequent campaigns. Despite having an average of $54,875 more to spend on their second bids, most of the 45 never-say-die candidates who lost in both 1992 and 1994 did no better in their second bids, and some did considerably worse.

    In 1992, California Democrat Mark Takano spent $344,361 and came within 519 votes of winning his open seat contest with Republican Ken Calvert. In November 1993, police discovered the partially clad Calvert in his car with a convicted prostitute. In 1994, it was revealed that Calvert had failed to pay $16,000 in taxes on land he and his wife owned. Joe Khoury, a professor in finance at the University of California, Riverside, came within 1,021 votes of ending Calvert's congressional career in the Republican primary. Calvert spent $63,491 of his $782,911 budget during the off-year and another $264,080 to secure the nomination. Yet despite spending twice as much as he had in 1992, Takano captured just 38 percent of the vote.

    Minnesota Republican Bernie Omann spent $218,951 and captured 49 percent of the vote in 1992, despite the fact that Democratic incumbent Collin C. Peterson outspent him by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Two years later, in a Republican year with a $507,325 spending spree that brought him within $76,767 of Peterson's outlays, Omann received an identical 49 percent of the vote.

    With $502,513 to spend in 1992, Democrat Philip Schiliro took a brief leave from his duties as an aide to California Rep. Henry Waxman and collected 46 percent of the vote against Republican David A. Levy in New York's then-open 1st District. When the initial Democratic nominee opted to pursue a judicial appointment, Schiliro stepped up to bat again in 1994 – this time facing Dan Frisa, who had ousted Levy in a bitter Republican primary battle. With a campaign treasury of nearly $450,000 – twice as much as Frisa – Schiliro collected only 37 percent of the vote.

    This rather dismal record of repeated failure has not dissuaded many 1994 losers from charging up the hill again in 1996. So far, twenty 1994 losers have won renomination in California, Texas, Illinois and Ohio. Based upon the early fund-raising numbers, their prospects appear rather bleak. As of March 31, these twenty would-be House members had an average of only $32,246 in cash-on-hand. The incumbents who they will try to dislodge had an average bank balance of $275,785.

    Presumably, one reason that losing House candidates keep coming back for more is that once in a while they win. After narrowly defeating an incumbent to win his seat in 1990 and promptly losing that seat two years later in an equally close race, California Republican Frank Riggs took 53 percent of the votes in 1994 to reclaim the prize.

    The third time was also the charm for Wisconsin Republican Mark Neumann, who took 41 percent of the vote against then-Rep. Les Aspin in 1992. When Aspin decided to accept President Clinton's offer to become Secretary of Defense in 1993, Neumann tried and failed again, losing to Democrat Peter Barca by just 675 votes. Finally, in 1994, Neumann captured the 1st district by a slim 1,120-vote margin.

    As Donna Peterson might have said, there is always hope.

    This article originally appeared on the ElectionLine Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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