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Most races for US Congress over before they start

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While the struggle for control of the House of Representatives rages in three dozen hard-fought districts, at least 64 lawmakers can lean back, kick off their shoes and enjoy themselves Nov. 7.

They face no major-party opposition, having effectively won their races before they even started.

In fact, most of their colleagues can coast through this election, too, even if they have a challenger on the ballot. As in past years, few incumbents will be booted from office, and about 400 of the 435 House races are essentially over.

The widespread lack of competition at the congressional and state legislative level is fueled by a once-a-decade redistricting process that creates increasingly safe one-party districts and the spectacular amounts of money needed to mount a challenge to an entrenched incumbent, analysts say.

"In the vast majority of races around the country, there is no question who is going to win," said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "Absent an indictment or scandal or $1 million in the bank, it's awfully difficult to unseat an incumbent."

In 1998, only six House incumbents -- five Republicans and a Democrat -- were kicked from office. The average re-election rate for incumbents, who enjoy tremendous advantages in name recognition and fund raising, is a whopping 94 percent over the last two decades.

Better chance of dying

In fact, once elected to Congress, a lawmaker stands more chance of dying in office than he does of being beaten even in a party primary, where the built-in advantage of a one-party district should not be as much help.

Ten members of Congress have died since November 1992, while only eight have lost in primary challenges.

The situation is not much better in the Senate, where only 15 of 34 Senate races this year are remotely competitive and one incumbent, Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, is unopposed.

"Once an incumbent settles in, they face very little competition," said Robert Richie, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy. "The vast majority of races, particularly in the House, are fundamentally noncompetitive."

Both parties seem to benefit equally from the competition vacuum -- of the 64 candidates without major-party opposition this year, 31 are Republicans and 33 are Democrats.

Analysts say the biggest contributor to the lack of competition is redistricting, the once-a-decade process in which the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn based on census data.

Redesign to own advantage

While they are supposed to be redrawn equally to reflect changes in population, parties have traditionally used the process to redesign districts to their advantage, shuffling whole neighborhoods or towns from one district to another in hopes of helping or hurting an incumbent or making a district more reliably Republican or Democratic.

Under redistricting, a process that begins in the state legislature in 44 of 50 states, "legislators literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them," their constituents before their constituents choose them," Richie said in a recent report.

The other culprit is money. Campaign spending records are falling at all levels of the ballot, with the hotly contested race in Republican Rep. James Rogan's suburban Los Angeles district setting a new record of more than $10 million -- high even for a Senate race.

Incumbents can raise the big money they need more easily. In the first 18 months of the 2000 election cycle, there were only 71 House districts where a candidate did not hold at least a two-to-one financial advantage on the competition, Makinson said.

Political parties are hesitant to wade into a race and spend the crucial funds needed to support a challenger unless they sense a realistic hope of a pay-off.

"Your time and resources are limited and you need to focus on races you can win," said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic congressional campaign committee.

Even candidates with noncompetitive races still rake in the donations, Makinson said, building up war chests for future races or sprinkling colleagues with donations in preparation for runs at prestigious leadership or committee posts.

By July 1, 1999, more than a year before this year's election, the average incumbent had $300,000 in the bank for campaigning, Makinson said. That discourages challengers.

"There are a lot of incumbents raising a lot of money and setting it aside for the next campaign, and the moat they build around the castle of incumbency becomes even deeper," Makinson said.

Frustrated by the lack of competition, filmmaker Michael Moore launched a drive earlier this year to get voters to write in a potted plant -- specifically, a ficus -- in more than 20 congressional races where candidates were unopposed.

"In a country where the majority no longer vote, writing in ficus will give the disenfranchised voter a chance to cast a vote for 'none of the above,"' Moore said on his Ficus 2000 campaign Web site.

 



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Monday, October 30, 2000


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