Why did the challengers even bother to run for office?

Friday, November 9, 2012

With one understandable exception, the challengers in Maryland’s Senate and Congressional races were soundly defeated. That one exception was the contest in Congressional District 6 in which 86 year-old Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett lost to Democrat John Delaney, who is less than 86 years old.

As you can see from the chart below, not one of the other races was even close. (You can click on it to make it larger.) Going down the blue-colored column on the right, look at the percentages of the vote the incumbents received: Cardin running for the Senate, 55.2% and he had two opponents. Harris, a Republican, 63.9%. Ruppersberger, 65.4%. Sarbanes, who doesn’t take special interest money, 66.5%. Edwards, 76.8%. Hoyer, 69.2%. Delaney, 58.6%, the one challenger who beat his incumbent. Cummings, 76.2%. And Van Hollen, 62.5%.

One could argue that it was just a matter of registered Democrats voting for the Democrat candidates, and registered Republicans doing the same for theirs. Certainly there’s a good deal of that happening, particularly as the parties become more and more different in their respective, increasingly nut-ball politics, but there’s something more going on as you can see in the yellow column on the right. Cardin, running against two opponents, got less than 100% of the Democrat vote, 55.2% of the vote as compared to the 61.8% of voters who are registered Democrats. Harris, the Republican incumbent in District 1, had plenty of Democrats voting for him. And Van Hollen, the Democrat in District 8, clearly had Republican support. On the other hand, Edwards in District 4 and Cummings in District 7, both Democrats running in very blue Congressional Districts, seem to have gotten their share of Democrat votes, and then some.

We don’t talk much about the primaries, because so few voters care enough to show up, but the incumbents win even bigger there. Cardin, 74.2% of the primary vote for Senate. Harris, unopposed. Ruppersberger, unopposed Sarbanes, 86.4%. Edwards, 91.8%. Hoyer, 84.7%. Bartlett, the only incumbent who lost, should have seen the writing on the wall, winning the primary with only 43.8% of the Republican vote in a field of eight. Cummings, 92.8%. And Van Hollen, 92.2%.

Whatever the precise reasons why they keep winning, the fact is that Marylanders, and Americans in general, love their incumbents. Once in office, incumbents are running for re-election every day and are able to attract the money, including special interest contributions, they need to trash anyone who dares run against them.

So why run against an incumbent? The outcome of every one of the races in Maryland could have forecast in March, before the primary. Why bother? Here some reasons that come to mind:

1. Because they’re really running for something else later? Independent Senate candidate, Rob Sobhani, for example, didn’t enter the race until September and then proceeded to spend several million dollars of his own money, primarily on television advertising – all for only 17% of the vote. Rob Sobhani is a very intelligent man, so it’s a good guess that he knew his chances, particularly running as an Independent in a three-way race, were not good. Why run? Possibly because he saw it as a relatively convenient, if not inexpensive way to establish statewide name recognition as a precursor to running for Governor in 2014.

2. Practice? Speaking of the Senate race, I’m guessing that impassioned Republican Dan Bongino, just 37 years old, will be running again for something. He ran a poor campaign for Senate. As a practice run, it was probably worth the effort – although I wouldn’t want to make that point too strongly to his campaign’s contributors.

3. Business exposure? I have no way of knowing, of course, but I get the feeling that some candidates, particularly the ones who run more than once only to see the same disappointing results, somehow benefit financially from the exposure the campaign gives them.

4. Fun? Nah. Too perverted, even for a pol-head like me.

5. No idea what they’re getting themselves into? Absolutely.

6. Delusions of victory? I guess so, but should candidates in this category be allowed to drive or hold sharp objects?

7. 15 minutes of fame? Given how little some of these candidates raise – Frank Mirabile’s $15,000 in District 7, for example – running for office is pretty much a cheap thrill. (Can minimal efforts like these really be taken seriously?)

8. True believer? Sure. I used to be one of those, but then I used to have hair too.

No doubt there are other reasons, but, for the most part, the result is costly and humiliating loss. The one thing they all have in common is that they have greatly underestimated the power of the incumbency as an excuse for continuous campaigning – What, you thought they actually work on important stuff after we elect them? – and raising special interest money, John Sarbanes being the exception.

I know we keep saying this, but, one of these days, we need to change how we elect our Representatives and Senators so that being an incumbent is less of sure-thing advantage every time they run.

-Next Contestant

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