U.S. PIRG Spotlights Cash-Poor Candidates

Posted January 24, 2005 at 6:46pm

They aren’t sore losers so much as they are poor losers. At least that’s the conclusion of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund regarding 45 Congressional candidates who lost in 2004 thanks mainly to the massive war chests of their opponents.

“Their qualifications suggest that many of these candidates would have made talented and dedicated public servants, but they have been eliminated by the wealth primary,” concluded the study, which is being released today.

The report, titled “Look Who’s Not Coming to Washington,” relates the experiences of Congressional candidates who couldn’t raise enough money to knock off better-funded opponents in primaries or general elections.

Though U.S. PIRG is an activist group that generally takes liberal positions, just under half of the candidates it profiles in the report are Republicans.

Some of the candidates featured faced a stack deck because they were running in districts that heavily favored the other party. But others attracted at least modest — though ultimately insufficient — interest from national party officials, including Jan Schneider (D), who lost to Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), and Kris Kobach (R), who lost to Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.).

Still others made credible but losing bids in contested primaries, including Kalyn Free (D), who lost to now-Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.); Al Taubenberger (R), who lost a primary to Melissa Brown (R) in a seat eventually won by now-Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.); and Heidi Behrens-Benedict (D), who lost to Dave Ross (D) in a primary for a seat ultimately won by Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).

And a few made comparatively quixotic candidacies, such as Richard Morrison, the Democratic attorney who challenged the powerful House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and Andrew Rosenberg, another Democratic attorney who failed to unseat Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) in a primary despite a string of embarrassing news stories about Moran’s activities.

One example cited in the report is Democrat Peter Mathews, a California college professor who decided to take on incumbent Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) in last year’s primary.

Fundraising primarily door-to-door, Mathews raised a total of about $36,000 for his primary, with his average contributions in the range of $2 to $3.

Though McDonald is a member of the House’s minority party and her district is hardly affluent — it includes portions of Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood and the city of Compton — she benefited greatly from being an incumbent. McDonald raised more than three times the amount Mathews did and won 65 percent of the vote in the three-way primary. Mathews garnered a mere 16 percent.

“If we’d had money we could’ve targeted the community and done TV ads,” Mathews told the report’s authors.

The chairman of Cypress College’s political science report concedes that he didn’t always say the right thing to garner fat contributions from amply funded political action committees.

“I could say to ARCO, ‘We’ll deregulate,’ and they’d write me a $5,000 check,” Mathews said. Instead, Mathews said he told the company it needed to “reduce emissions” and “pay corporate taxes.” He never heard from them again.

Illinois Republican David Phelps also believes he lost his primary challenge to Rep. Phil Crane because Crane had a distinct fundraising advantage, particularly when it came to PAC contributions from drug and oil companies.

Crane was the second-ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee before being unseated by now-Rep. Melissa Bean (D) last fall, thanks in large part to criticism of Crane’s history of going on Congressional junkets and a sense that his long tenure in Congress was generally lackluster. Because Crane’s district generally leans Republican, some analysts had suggested that a Republican candidate with less baggage could have held off Bean in the general election.

“Average individuals cannot match what is accumulated by corporations or special interest groups,” Phelps told US PIRG. “The average person can’t afford to give $1,000, let alone $2,000.” (Phelps is no relation to former Rep. David Phelps, a Democrat who represented portions of southern Illinois in the House before losing to GOP Rep. John Shimkus in a post-redistricting face-off.)

Like Mathews, Phelps spent 13 months going door to door but raised only $20,500 for his primary bid — one-fifteenth of Crane’s $312,000 — and he received 31 percent of the vote.

Even in the wake of comprehensive changes to the system under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, all signs suggest that the money chase is only getting more exhausting.

PIRG researcher Dana Mason points out that the growth of money spent on campaigns is dramatically outpacing the rate of inflation. In fact, winning Congressional candidates raised nearly 50 percent more money in the 2004 elections than they did during a comparable period in 2002.

Not surprisingly, the better-funded candidate usually wins. Of the Congressional primary candidates who raised the most money in 2004, a full 91 percent won their races, according to PIRG’s analysis of Federal Election Commission data.

So what can be done? PIRG is proposing several policy changes to create a more level playing field. Its proposals include lowering contribution limits; offering vouchers or tax credits for political contributions of up to $100; public financing of campaigns; limits on campaign spending and out-of-district fundraising; and free airtime for candidates.

Several candidates featured in the report seem to support those ideas.

“The challenge in a low-budget campaign is to get your message out,” said Tony Zirkle, a GOP candidate who lost his primary bid in Indiana’s 2nd district. “A couple of free 30-second commercials would help.”