The Don Quixotes of Politics
By Dwight L. Morris
Republican Tom Watson is a firefighter from Arlington, Tenn. Like Democrats Henry Boyd, a paralegal from Holly Springs, Miss., and Jeffrey William Grey, a telephone repairman from Lexington, Va., Watson wants to be a member of the United States House of Representatives. So do Democrats Vincent Tolliver, a writer from Lake Village, Ark., and Diane Trautman, a homemaker from Santa Clarita, Calif. Republican Deborah Lynn Wheelehan, an office manager from St. Louis, Mo, is equally eager to relocate to Washington next January if she can figure out a way to oust House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.
As one might expect from their occupations, none of these six aspiring House members has any prior political experience, but on November 5 they will join more than 200 fellow political novices in pursuing one version of the American dream. Most will discover if they haven't already that they have been tilting at windmills.
Wheelehan, for example, is preparing to attack Gephardt with a campaign treasury that contained just $1,376 on June 30. Following a 90-day push in which Gephardt raised $722,667 more than he spent, the minority leader's cash reserves on the same day stood at a far more comfortable $1,243,249.
As a Democrat fighting for survival in a thoroughly safe Republican district, Trautman had only $1,960 in her campaign bank account at the end of June. Her Republican opponent, two-term incumbent Buck McKeon reported cash reserves of $173,220.
In Tennessee's 8th District, Watson had managed to raise a total of only $2,400 as of June 30. An $8,000 loan had allowed him to run a minimal campaign, but by the end of June, Watson's campaign bank balance stood at just $1,567. His Democratic opponent, four-term incumbent John Tanner, has never received less than 62 percent of the general election vote and on June 30 reported cash reserves of $488,747.
In Virginia's 6th District, Grey's monetary situation was only slightly better. With total receipts of $9,817 and expenses of just $3,095, he had $6,722 at the end of June to spend against two term Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte. A comfortable winner in 1992 and unopposed for reelection in 1994, Goodlatte had $455,100 in his campaign bank account.
Tolliver and Boyd both reported having no cash reserves on June 30. Their opponents, two-term Republican incumbent Jay Dickey and freshman Republican Roger Wicker, had campaign bank balances of $305,721 and $170,314, respectively. This sad economic reality is replicated in virtually all races where political novices have secured their party's nomination.
In the 305 districts where both the Democratic and Republican contestants have been decided, 168 political novices have won the right to contest the November general election, accounting for 55 percent of the non-incumbents running. Ninety percent of these novices have chosen to take on incumbents, and among these longest of the long-shots, the average bank balance reported as of June 30 was $27,030.
In rather sharp contrast, the average bank balance reported by the incumbents who will face these underfunded challengers was $273,328. In short, either because they represent districts where their party's registration advantage is overwhelming or because they have represented their districts for years, more than half of all incumbents seeking re-election this year have drawn only token opposition. Their novice challengers many of whom were accorded their party's nomination by default have drawn virtually no financial support for the simple reason that they have absolutely no chance of success.
Even including novices who are contesting open seats, the cash-on-hand totals reported as of June 30 averaged only $30,690. Ninety-three of these would-be "Mr. Smiths" reported cash reserves of less than $10,000 including fifty-one who had less than $1,000 in the bank. Only seventeen could claim cash reserves of $100,000 or more.
Those novices who do succeed on November 5 will, for the most part, come from the ranks of those who can self-finance their campaigns. Attorney Larry I. Lerner, a Democrat who hopes to unseat two-term Republican Bob Franks in New Jersey's 7th District, had $259,062 in his campaign bank account on June 30, primarily because he had been able to tap his personal bank account for $251,519. Similarly, attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr., a Mississippi Democrat who is gunning for the open seat created by the retirement of Republican Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery, had pumped $251,021 of his own money into the race as of June 30, enabling him to report cash-on-hand of $204,803. While Georgia cookie baron Michael Coles had a mere $839 in his campaign account on June 30, he had already spent more than $700,000 of his own money in a bid to unseat House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Texan Ruben Hinojosa who won the Democratic nomination and, for all practical purposes, the seat occupied for thirty-two years by Democratic Rep. E. "Kika" de la Garza spent $411,255 of his own money to make certain that his dream of serving in the 105th Congress comes true.
And despite the "anti-politician" mood ascribed to the electorate by the media over the past several elections, none of this is new. Of the 510 candidates who challenged House incumbents or sought open seats in 1992, 50 percent had never held public office, sought public office, or held a political party position. However, of the 110 successful challengers and open-seat candidates that year, only 14 were political novices, including Michael Huffington, who spent $5,191,728 of his own money the most anyone has ever spent to gain a House seat.
Also among the successful 1992 novices was Alabama newspaper executive Terry Everett, who sank roughly $600,000 of his own money into winning the Republican nomination in District 2. He then spent another $331,000 of his own cash to defeat state treasurer George C. Wallace Jr., son of the former Governor and presidential candidate, in November. This $931,000 cash infusion accounted for 88 percent of Everett's total receipts.
Six of the 14 successful novices in 1992 provided at least $100,000 of the money they spent to win their seats.
The story-line in 1994 was virtually identical. Of the 454 candidates who challenged incumbents or contested open seats, 267 (59%) were political novices. Only 20 novices less than one-quarter of the newly elected freshman class were successful.
This column originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.
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