Douglas J. Smith and Geraldine Green are hardly household names, but they will be remembered by two senior House members, Reps. Al Swift (D-Wash.) and Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), because the poorly financed challengers cut deeply into the incumbents' usually comfortable victory margins.
Swift, who ran unopposed in 1988, outspent Smith $327,403 to $4,371 through Oct. 17, but beat him only by 51 to 41 percent, with a third-party candidate getting 8 percent. Vander Jagt outspent Green $331,142 to $13, but won with only 55 percent of the vote.
The perennial fund-raising advantages enjoyed by incumbents didn't help in several gubernatorial and Senate races, in which challengers received plenty of attention from the news media. For instance, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) lost despite outspending challenger Paul Wellstone $6.4 million to $781,152. Florida Gov. Bob Martinez (R) lost decisively to former senator Lawton Chiles (D), although Chiles limited donations to no more than $100 per person.
But cash cushions, like the ones Swift and Vander Jagt enjoyed, helped several incumbents survive in close finishes that reflected voter unrest.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) outspent his opponent $10.5 million to less than $500,000, but won with only 52 percent. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is headed for a recount against an opponent he outspent $1 million to $267,000.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) spent more than $1.1 million to win 57 percent of the vote against a challenger who spent only $62,451. Rep. William L. Dickinson (Ala.), ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, squeaked by 51 to 49 percent though outspending his opponent $474,000 to $137,000.
Money made a difference in several races for open seats. Democrats won all 11 of the open seats that were vacated by Democrats, often with candidates who collected large amounts of labor union political action committee (PAC) money.
Both houses of Congress passed versions of campaign finance reform legislation last year, but no such law was enacted. The battleground in the coming session is expected to be the House, where Swift and Vander Jagt are leaders of their parties' campaign finance task forces.
Thomas E. Mann, a Brookings Institution specialist on Congress, said reduced victory margins of incumbents made it "less likely" the House will pass serious reform. The results show a need for public financing to stimulate competition, he said. But those results also explain why incumbents "who know they survived because they had no real challenger" have no incentive to pass a bill that might cut their fund-raising advantage.
Swift agreed in an interview yesterday that his House colleagues aren't eager to pass a bill making it easier for challengers. He said reform proponents, such as Ralph Nader and Common Cause, need to convince the public as well as Congress of the need for public financing of congressional elections.
"Congress isn't going to do something it doesn't want to do when the reward is going home and having your head handed to you," he said.
An analysis by Common Cause shows that winners in 106 House races Tuesday attracted 60 percent or less of the vote -- more than twice as many close races as there were two years ago.
But only 15 incumbents lost, most of them because they were in marginal districts or had ethical problems. "There is no way to match up the public mood and anger that has existed this year with the congressional election results unless you recognize that we're dealing with a rigged system," Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer said. "A corrupt campaign finance system is blocking real elections from taking place."
He noted that 79 House incumbents were unopposed, and another 168 -- who all won -- had opponents who raised less than $25,000. Another 124 incumbents had challengers who raised less than half what they did, and 118 of the incumbents won. Of the 35 incumbents who faced challengers who raised more than half as much money, 26 won.