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Congressional Challengers Find Power of Incumbency Almost Impossible to Beat

By David M. Pittman
Capital News Service
Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002

WASHINGTON - Maryland voters sent six of seven congressional incumbents back to Washington by wide margins Tuesday, a testament to the power of incumbency that was repeated across the country.

With incumbents able to rake in money from long-established donors, and with the name recognition that comes from free mailing privileges, among other perks of the office, many challengers find themselves having to fight twice as hard to gain any ground in their campaigns.

"The system is geared to helping incumbents and until you get away from that system, you will foster noncompetitive races," said Don DeArmon, a Democrat who was soundly beaten in his second bid to unseat 6th District Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick.

The exception in Maryland was the 8th District, where Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, was targeted by state and national Democrats. The party packed her district with Democratic voters in redistricting this year and poured millions of dollars into the campaign that ultimately elected state Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Montgomery.

Otherwise, Maryland was more like the rest of the nation, where 98 percent of House members seeking re-election were returned to Washington.

Except for the 8th District race, no challenger in Maryland was able to muster more than 34 percent of the vote Tuesday.

Few of the six returning Maryland House members hold key positions in their parties or respective committees. But all of them are able to funnel millions of dollars in federal projects and contracts back to the state and their districts and attend to constituent needs.

The power also lends itself to fund raising: Incumbents have established contacts with industries that make it easier to get money. The Center for Responsive Politics said that for every dollar raised by challengers in Maryland's 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th districts this election, incumbents raised $27.

"You're going to have to convince donors or interest groups that it's worth their investment, and challengers just can't do that," said center spokesman Steven Weiss.

DeArmon, who fared better than most challengers and raised about half the money Bartlett did, still found it difficult to attract big donors, including the state party.

"If I was coming to you for a contribution, and you knew that my chances of losing were 95 or 96 percent, you'd hedge your bets and not give to me," DeArmon said.

Republican Joe Crawford raised less than $5,000 in his failed bid to unseat 5th District Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, who raised almost $1 million this election cycle.

"I have watched candidate after candidate be convinced they are going to win and then go down in flames," said Crawford, who got 30 percent of vote. "Obviously, if I had a million dollars to throw at it, it's a whole different dynamic."

Campaign reform advocates who acknowledge incumbents' hold on the electorate point to solutions like term limits and caps on fund raising and spending.

"Only with open seats do candidates have a level playing field," said Stacie Rumenap, executive director of U.S. Term Limits. "Our system is being held captive."

Joe Cluster, field coordinator for the Maryland Republican Party, agreed that running against an incumbent is "suicide."

"If you're just a nobody, and don't represent anyone, you don't stand a chance of winning," Cluster said.

While the GOP is identifying Maryland's weakest Democratic incumbents, there are no plans to take them on while they hold office, Cluster said.

He pointed to the 2nd District seat that was left open when Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, mounted a successful bid for governor. Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger won a costly campaign for the open seat against Republican Helen Bentley.

"I don't think Dutch would have ever thought about running if Ehrlich never left the seat," Cluster said. "You have to have a local base that's willing to go out and chip away at the incumbent's base."

But spokesmen from both state parties were unapologetic about the advantages of incumbency.

"If they (incumbents) do their job and respond to their voters, people respect that and will give them their vote on Election Day," Cluster said.

David Paulson of the Maryland Democratic Party agreed. "The power of incumbency makes legislators behave and perform for their constituents."


Copyright 2002 University of Maryland College of Journalism

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