April 09, 2020

With huge financial advantage, incumbents almost always win

WASHINGTON – Two years ago, 98 percent of House incumbents seeking re-election and 96 percent of Senate incumbents seeking re-election won. Their victories were largely due to financial advantages that incumbents have, according to political finance experts.

“It takes money to get elected,” said Massie Ritsch, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization based in Washington that tracks money in politics and the effect of money on elections and public policy. “If you don’t have money, you stand a very small chance in coming to Washington.”

“Donors are looking for candidates that are going to win and that they think are going to be in Washington in the upcoming session, and that tends to be where they invest their dollars,” said Richard Powell, political science professor and director of the Maine Congressional Internship Program at the University of Maine in Orono.

In Maine this year, the disparity between the amount of money raised by members of Congress up for re-election and the amount raised by their challengers is glaring.

According to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Democratic Reps. Michael Michaud and Tom Allen and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who are all up for re-election, have raised significantly more money and had considerably more cash in the bank than their challengers going into the final weeks before the election.

As of Sept. 30, the most recent campaign finance filing deadline, Michaud had raised $658,342 for the 2006 race and spent $424,793 on such things as campaign consultants, fundraising and contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Maine Democratic Party. He had $232,025 in his campaign account while his Republican challenger, L. Scott D’Amboise, had only $7,841 in the bank at the end of September.

In the same fashion, Allen raised $835,716, spent $555,873, and still had $379,423 left. His two competitors, Republican Darlene Curley and Independent Dexter Kamilewicz, had only $32,037 and $15,504 respectively.

Looking at House races nationally, Ritsch said, “In 2004, if you raised any less than $1 million, you had zero chance in winning. I would expect the threshold to be higher this election.”

Maine’s House members may be the exception, Ritsch added. “Compared to the other incumbents, their fundraising is probably lower. But they don’t have any real competition,” he said.

According to Snowe’s campaign’s filing with the Federal Election Commission, the senator raised more than $3.2 million for the 2006 election cycle, and still had $1,674,520 left for the last weeks of the campaign. Her strongest challenger, Democrat Jean Hay Bright, raised only $43,118, out of which $119 remained at the end of September.

“Snowe is a well-known, well-liked senator who has millions of dollars, who raised millions of dollars, and it’s hard for anyone to compete with that,” Ritsch said.

But even Snowe’s campaign war chest would be considered small by national standards.

In 2006, incumbent senators running for re-election have raised an average of $9.3 million, while their challengers have raised an average of $1.2 million, Ritsch said. On the House side, the average for incumbents is $1.1 million while for challengers it is only $224,000.

The two biggest sources of contributions for most members of Congress are political action committees, specifically those from business interests, and large donations from individuals.

Democrats also tend to get a substantial amount from labor union PACs. In 2004, labor unions gave $55.4 million to candidates, 89 percent of which went to Democratic candidates, according the center’s Web site, www.opensecrets.org.

This is especially true for Michaud, who before becoming a congressman was a union-card carrying paper mill worker for three decades. PAC contributions account for 68.4 percent of Michaud’s source of funds, and nearly 50 percent of that PAC money is from labor unions, according to opensecrets.org. In addition, the top four industry groups contributing to Michaud are transportation unions, public sector unions, building trade unions and industrial unions, totaling $171, 500.

In Snowe’s case however, individual contributions account for 57 percent of her campaign fundraising, totaling more than $2 million, according to opensecrets.org.

Candidates for the House of Representatives generally get the majority of their campaign dollars from donors within their home state, Ritsch said. Michaud’s campaign is 79 percent funded through Maine contributions, whereas D’Amboise is totally dependent on in-state donations, according to opensecrets.org.

Incumbents tend to get more out-of-state money than challengers because their status as a member of Congress makes them more well-known. Challengers are rarely known outside their state, so their ability to raise funds beyond their district is limited, Ritsch said. Snowe, for example, gets 71.2 percent of her fundraising from out-of-state.

“In most every race incumbents have a significant financial advantage,” UMaine’s Powell said. “They are tied into resources and networks in a much greater sense. Donators prefer to donate to campaigns they think will win.”

Incumbents have the added advantage of drawing money from Washington-area donors. Snowe got more money from the capital area than anywhere else, receiving $225,033. Donors from Washington rank second for Michaud, providing $12,250. Citizens from Bangor rank third for Michaud, contributing $11,800, and rank second for D’Ambroise’s campaign, donating $500.

Total contributions from Portland citizens topped the charts in both Michaud’s and D’Amboise’s campaigns, providing $33,800 and $2,100 respectively.

Maine candidates have shown the ability to raise large sums of money, Powell said, referring to the 2002 election when Michaud and Kevin Raye both raised more than a million dollars in their campaign for an open House seat.

“But challengers in Maine are going to have a hard time when they’re facing an incumbent in a strong position,” Powell said.

“Money almost always wins,” said Ritsch. “Incumbents almost always win.”

Correction: An article published on Page A4 in weekend editions contained an inaccuracy in a story by the Boston University Washington News Service about incumbents enjoying a huge advantage over challengers in campaign fundraising. The article should have said Democrat Jean Hay Bright, who is running for U.S. Senate, had $8,227 in cash on hand at the end of the Federal Election Commission’s Sept. 30 campaign finance filing deadline.

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