By Dwight Morris
House incumbents are like most good baseball pitchers. If you're going to beat them, you'd better get them before they settle into a rhythm. If the members of the 1996 freshman class came in as novices to the game, they've certainly learned their way around. After just two years on the job, most freshmen have hit their incumbency stride and are so well entrenched that they are primed to hold their seats for a very long time.
These numbers are impressive, but they cannot possibly convey the degree to which these 32 incumbents have gotten a free pass on the road to a second term. For instance, prior to Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr.'s 1996 election to Tennessee's 9th District, his father held the seat for 22 years. Now, as the younger Ford defends his seat for the first time, he will face Claude Burdikoff, a stained glass artist who has raised and spent less than $5,000. As of June 30, Ford had $336,461 in his campaign bank account.
The Incumbent Advantage In Living Color
In 1996, John Cooksey (R-La.) spent nearly $900,000 to win an open-seat contest against Democrat Francis Thompson, who spent more than $500,000. Now, just two years later, no Democrat bothered to challenge Cooksey, who raised $615,519 through the end of June and had $233,090 in the bank.
Even the 39 freshmen with better-funded opponents generally have little cause for concern. Together, these freshmen had raised a total of $26,080,350 by the end of June, an average of $668,727 each. The 45 challengers still vying for the right to take them on had raised a total of $10,941,807 an average of $243,151. That tally is a little lopsided, however; former Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), who is trying to recapture the seat he lost to Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996, boasts $2 million of that total. Take him out of the equation and the remaining 44 challengers have raised an average of $203,149.
Including Dornan, only three candidates challenging freshmen have raised $500,000 or more; 20 have cash reserves of between $100,000 and $324,000; and nine have raised between $20,000 and $100,000. Among freshmen facing challengers with more than $20,000:
Sixteen freshmen seeing reelection, including Cooksey, initially won their House seats only after borrowing more than $100,000 from their own bank accounts or from friendly bankers willing to take a chance. Four put more than $1 million of their own money into acquiring a Beltway address. Overall, 16 percent of all money these folks "raised" during 1996 $9,802,881 came from personal funds or secured bank loans.
Learning the Fund-Raising Ropes
Political action committees donated 26 percent of the cash collected by the 1996 freshman class, but they raised the ante during the first 18 months of this election cycle giving 41 percent of the money freshmen have raised. As of June 30, House freshmen held combined cash reserves of $19,235,859 an average of $270,928.
Working the System: Expenditures
F. Allen Boyd Jr. (D-Fla.) was so grateful to the staff and consultants who helped him pull off his 18-point 1996 victory that early the next year he paid bonuses with $14,290 from his campaign coffer. He spent $4,733.64 of his campaign money to move from Tallahassee, and paid $4,787 from the account for his cellular phone bills for the first 18 months of the election cycle. Boyd sent Christmas cards to his supporters even before he was sworn in, and when the $1,957 bill came due in 1997, the campaign covered it. He also spent $695 to air Christmas greetings to his new constituents. This November, Boyd is unopposed.
And to think that just two years ago most of these folks campaigned as outsiders who hated the way Washington works.
© Copyright 1998 Campaign Study Group