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`Worry free' US House elections. Incumbents' power - especially money-raising - makes for few close races

The United States House of Representatives, intended by the Founding Fathers to be the branch of government most responsive to the popular will, has seen one of the longest periods of one-party rule in the Free World. That won't change Nov. 8.

While a few seats may switch hands in this fall's elections, no one sees any major shift in the makeup of the chamber, currently tilted Democratic 254 to 178, with three seats vacant.

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``It will be a status quo election,'' says Charlie Cook Jr., editor of the Cook Political Report.

The reason is the peculiarities of the 1988 election and the power of incumbency.

While there are usually about 40 open seats in House races, this time there will be 27. That means an unusually large number of members seeking reelection (408), and in the House incumbency has become tantamount to victory.

In recent elections, more than 90 percent of those who decided to rerun for office were successful. The number hit 98 percent in 1986. The Democrats, in other words, seem sure to hang on to their 34-year grip of the House.

Yet don't tune out the plebiscite yet. Amid all the predictability are some truly unorthodox and uncertain races that reflect American politics in all its guises. For instance:

California. What may be a referendum on Reaganism is emerging in the rumpled hills near Santa Barbara. President Reagan won't be on the ballot. But he has both boots in the campaign.

His ranch sits outside of town, and he has long been a friend and ideological ally of the Republican standard-bearer, Robert Lagomarsino. Normally, the seven-term incumbent would be considered a shoo-in in the district. But Democrats sense victory with Gary Hart, a liberal-leaning state senator and ex-teacher (and no relation to the former Colorado lawmaker).

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The contest should be one of the country's most visible - and expensive.

Indiana. A tough rematch is emerging between incumbent John Hiler (R) and Thomas Ward (D) in the South Bend area. Mr. Hiler won last time by 47 votes.

Usually the GOP does well in the Third Congressional District in presidential election years. But Mr. Ward, a lawyer, is pumping substantial sums and energy into avenging his 1986 loss. Still, recent polls show Hiler with a slight lead.

New Mexico. How the Hispanic vote divides will be important in determining a close matchup between Democrat Tom Udall and Republican Steven Schiff for an open seat in the Albuquerque area.

The son of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the Democratic standard-bearer is a former state and federal prosecutor. Mr. Schiff is a county district attorney. They are battling for the seat given up by Manuel Lujan Jr., one of the GOP's most visible elected Hispanic officials.

``Most of the competition takes place in open seats this year,'' says Peggy Connolly of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Although the Republicans usually do best in House races in presidential years, this time around they recruited candidates late in the election cycle. Their best chance of picking up a few seats may lie in a big turnout for Vice-President George Bush.

The Democrats didn't have a stellar recruiting year either, according to some analysts. They are hoping to pick up three to five seats.

The predominant force at work, though, will be incumbency. Of the 435 House races, fewer than 75 are expected to be competitive. Real uncertainty exists in only 15 to 20 contests.

There are several reasons for this. One is the simple perquisites of power. Members of Congress usually command large staffs, some of whom spend their time tending to needs back home, and where they can bombard voters with binfuls of mail at taxpayers' expense.

Both parties have opened radio and television studios that enable lawmakers in Washington to hold ``video town meetings'' and beam other messages back home. Perhaps most important, however, is the financial advantage incumbents hold over challengers. Political Action Committees (PACs), big campaign contributors, tend to prefer incumbents over challengers.

In the 18 months ending June 30, PACs contributed $47 million to House incumbents and $3.1 million to their challengers. Overall war chests through the same period favored incumbents $106 million to $20.5 million.

``What makes incumbency so powerful in the House is that a single individual can put his or her stamp on a district,'' says Robert McClure, a congressional campaign expert at Syracuse University.

Fernand St Germain (D) of Rhode Island may be a case in point. Despite being the subject of recent ethics investigations, the chairman of the powerful House Banking Committee seems likely to be returned for a 15th term this fall.

He faced a strong challenge in the primary, but remains well ahead in the general election race against Republican Ronald Machtley, who early in the campaign toured the district with a pig to dramatize fat in the federal budget.

``It is just so hard to beat an incumbent these days,'' grouses one GOP Congressional Campaign Committee staff member.

But staying power in office can cut both ways. In Georgia's Fourth District, incumbent Republican Pat Swindall has remained competitive in his race despite being under an ethical and legal cloud. He was indicted on perjury charges in connection with a money-laundering investigation. He had earlier asked to be indicted to clear his name before the Nov. 8 election.

Before this, he was running in a close and nasty contest with Democrat Ben Jones, a former actor on the ``Dukes of Hazzard'' TV show, whom Mr. Swindall has accused of being less than forthcoming about a prior arrest record.

Since they are firmly in the majority, the Democrats benefit most from this petrification. Some Congress watchers worry that their dominance could permanently relegate the GOP to a minority role. They complain that the lack of turnover among House members saps Congress of freshness.

Still, power is far less centralized in the House than it once was and party cohesion is not as rigid as with, say, the Tories in Britain. Analysts argue some continuity is needed to deal with complicated issues.

``It's the kind of thing where some turnover is healthy - but not too much,'' says Mr. Cook.

Ultimately, there may be no need for hand-wringing. Some analysts are predicting a big turnover in House elections in 1990 and '92, when the battle over redistricting will be in full swing.

The PAC pack Incumbents in House races with the most contributions from political-action committees Nancy Pelosi (D), (Calif.) $487,965 Robert Michel (R), (Ill.) 423,040 Robert Matsui (D), (Calif.) 367,396 John Dingell (D), (Mich.) 335,115 Jim Jontz (D), (Ind.) 329,409 Mary Rose Oakar (D), (Ohio) 325,278 Bob Clement (D), (Tenn.) 311,750 James Quillen (R), (Tenn.) 311,650 William Gray III (D), (Pa.) 309,102 Byron Dorgan (D), (N.D.) 298,796 Dan Rostenkowski (D), (Ill.) 295,798 Ronnie Flippo (D), (Ala.) 293,208 Mickey Leland (D), (Texas) 289,475 Tony Coelho (D), (Calif.) 287,921 Thomas McMillen (D), (Md.) 287,423 *Candidate participated in a special election Source: Federal Election Commission

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