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    Money Talks

    Money & Politics In '96: Part II

    By Dwight L. Morris
    November 19, 1996

    Note: This article, examining the campaign for seats in the House, is the second in a series. The first, which looked at the Senate, is available in the archives.

    It may be true that Americans hate politics: Less than half the eligible electorate bothered to show up last Tuesday. But those who trooped to the polls clearly do not hate politicians. With three races involving incumbents still to be decided, 360 of the 382 House incumbents seeking re-election had been rewarded with another two-year term, a 94 percent re-election rate. Only 19 House incumbents were informed that their services were no longer required.

    Among the 71 new faces that will definitely grace the halls of Congress next year, 49 have held some form of elective office, including five former members of the House and 27 state legislators. Another 14 of the newly elected freshman class are political operatives, having either sought a House seat in 1994, worked for a member of Congress, or held a position in a state Republican or Democratic party organization. While 270 political neophytes contested the November general elections, only eight will definitely be joining the freshmen class of 1997 (two are still in the running pending the final tallies of absentee votes).

    Money Made The Difference
    For the vast majority of incumbents who survived, as well as successful challengers and open-seat candidates, the principal determinant of success was money. Heading into the final two weeks of the campaign, the average incumbent who emerged victorious had already spent nearly $446,000 (not counting refunds and transfers). In contrast, the losing challengers had spent $143,000. The winners had more than $260,000 in the bank. The losers had roughly a tenth of that amount!

    The winning challengers painted a far different picture from the ones who lost: The 19 victorious challengers had managed to spend more than $737,000 by October 16 – the last date for which financial figures are available, and reported cash reserves of more than $139,000. (The incumbents they vanquished had spent an average of $696,000 through October 16 and had roughly $164,000 in the bank.)

    In short, financially non-competitive races generally produced electoral routs. Races that produced upsets, were far more likely to be financially competitive.

    Although both sides in open seat contests tended to be well-funded, the same basic arithmetic applied. On average, those who would ultimately emerge with the victory had spent nearly $483,000 through mid-October and still had more than $96,000 in the bank. Open-seat losers reported spending an average of $342,000 through October 16, with cash reserves averaging only $62,000.

    The Voice Of Experience
    Not surprisingly, those with prior political experience tended to fair considerably better when it came to raising and spending money. Among the forty-nine career politicians who won open-seat contests or beat incumbents, the average expenditure through mid-October was nearly $556,000; their average bank balance heading into the final two weeks of the campaign was roughly $100,000. The comparable figures for winning political operatives were $689,000 and $151,000, respectively.

    The typical novice winner had managed to spend "only" about $345,000 through October 16 and reported cash reserves of just under $97,000. Even so, that was a great deal better than the typical losing novice managed to do. Among the 260 novices freed to continue their former careers, the average outlay through mid-October was $122,000, and the average bank balance was $21,000 – figures that go a long way toward explaining why so many incumbents and career politicians will be headed to Washington in January. It's no wonder that members of Congress, including, I suspect, most members of the incoming freshman class, will not be that enthusiastic about leveling the financial playing field.

    Squashing 'Frivolous Challenges'
    If any campaign finance reform does miraculously work its way through the House, it will probably include previsions similar to past bills, which sought to limit what one member described during a floor debate as "frivolous" challenges. For example, previous proposals promoting free or reduced television advertising rates for candidates who agreed to abide by a voluntary $600,000 spending cap, did so with the proviso that no such electoral goodies should be dispensed to candidates who failed to raise at least $60,000, or 10 percent of the proposed spending cap. Had it been in effect, that 10 percent threshold would have allowed every incumbent to qualify for reduced rates in 1996 but would have denied the reduced rates to 200 challengers.

    Of course, money was not the only factor in determining which of the "outsiders" found their way in from the political cold. While talk of anti-incumbent sentiment has been the rage over the past three election cycles, those with political experience knew very well that the path to Washington is generally a lot easier if one avoids taking on an incumbent.

    The Open Seat Route
    While 69 politicians opted to challenge incumbents, only 14 emerged victorious. Fifty-four politicians took the wiser approach of contesting open seats, and 35 of that group came out on top. The number would have been higher had several races not featured politician-versus-politician matchups.

    Among the novices, there was a far greater propensity to tilt at windmills. Of the 268 novices whose races have been decided, 241 opted to battle incumbents. Only one of those 241, Carolyn McCarthy, emerged with a victory. Running as a Democrat because Republican party elders blocked her from challenging freshman Rep. Dan Frisa in the primary, McCarthy had spent nearly $482,000 through October 16, slamming the incumbent for voting to overturn the ban on assault weapons – an appeal that was especially potent since her husband had been murdered and her son wounded in a 1993 shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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