What makes a race competitive?

Two disparate Oregon races tell story of 2020

A compelling biography that included helping to thwart a terrorist attack and appearing on “Dancing With the Stars” helped Republican Alek Skarlatos' bid for Oregon’s 4th District get national attention.  (Santiago Felipe/FilmMagic via Getty Images file photo)
A compelling biography that included helping to thwart a terrorist attack and appearing on “Dancing With the Stars” helped Republican Alek Skarlatos' bid for Oregon’s 4th District get national attention. (Santiago Felipe/FilmMagic via Getty Images file photo)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 9:00am

What defines a competitive race and who deems it so? 

In the final months of the campaign, Oregon’s 4th District was home to one of hottest races in the country. Republicans and Democrats poured millions of dollars into the contest between Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio and Republican Alek Skarlatos, which was rated as competitive by all of the major political handicappers. GOP strategists were bullish. Democrats were concerned. And in the end, the congressman prevailed 52 percent to 46 percent. 

Meanwhile, next door in Oregon’s 5th District, Democrat Kurt Schrader won reelection over Republican Amy Ryan Courser by a nearly identical 52 percent to 45 percent in a race that garnered no national attention. It wasn’t anywhere near the lists of battleground races. Virtually no TV ads. Yet the same results. 

So what happened? How did two disparate races land in the same place?

Past elections factor in

One of the first ingredients of a competitive race is past performance, including the most recent presidential results. By the numbers, the two Oregon districts should have made the lists of competitive races considering Hillary Clinton’s underwhelming victories there in 2016. She carried the 4th very narrowly (44.5 percent to 44.4 percent) and the 5th modestly (46 percent to 42 percent). 

Past congressional performance is another consideration, however, which didn’t bode well for the GOP. Democrats have held both districts for more than 20 years, and Republicans have a poor track record of recruiting quality challengers. In fact, the GOP put up the same candidate against DeFazio in the previous five cycles, and the congressman hadn’t lost by less than 10 points since his initial race in 1986. Schrader’s most competitive race was a decade ago when he won by 5 points. That meant Republicans faced a higher bar for credibility this cycle, and neither race was initially considered competitive.

Fundraising is another key ingredient of a competitive race. At least it traditionally receives an arguably disproportionate amount of attention from the party campaign committees and political journalists. And fundraising was a key reason why the 4th received more attention than the 5th. 

Through the middle of October, Skarlatos raised nearly $4.5 million while DeFazio raised $3.8 million. In comparison, Schrader raised $1.9 million and Courser raised a modest $187,000 over the same time period. In fact, Schrader’s primary challenger, Mark Gamba, spent more than Courser. 

Fundraising is the fuel for the competitive-race fire. Skarlatos, an Army National Guard veteran who had a wild ride from thwarting a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train to playing himself in a Clint Eastwood movie to competing on “Dancing with the Stars,” was finally added to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s challenger program in March as On The Radar. He earned full Young Guns status in August, which helped propel the race into the national spotlight. Meanwhile, there probably weren’t five people at GOP headquarters who could identify Schrader’s challenger by name.

Inattention draws attention?

Races also get attention when candidates or incumbents publicly complain about the lack of attention from the party committees. But Courser didn’t use that tactic (or at least her complaining wasn’t loud enough). She didn’t attract the attention of outside groups such as the Club for Growth or groups seeking to elect more Republican women.

Schrader wasn’t on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline list for vulnerable incumbents (which sparks media attention), but he wasn’t publicly sore about a lack of party support. He and his team were confident in his standing in the race. DeFazio wasn’t on Frontline either, but Skarlatos’ fundraising certainly caught the eye of Democratic strategists, and DeFazio’s House colleagues said they noticed he was taking the challenge seriously.

Once both parties agree that a seat may be in play, the arms race begins. Competitiveness, more fundraising and more spending usually become self-fulfilling prophecies. To reporters and political handicappers, spending validates a party’s concern or optimism about a race. And on the flip side, a lack of spending leads to skepticism and doubt that a race is “real.”

In the end, both parties (candidates, campaign committees and outside groups) combined to spend $5.7 million on TV ads in Oregon’s 4th, according to Kantar/CMAG, which factored heavily into its more competitive ratings. The consistent stream of ad alerts fueled interest in the race and gave ample fodder for stories. The only general election TV advertising in the 5th District race was a miniscule cable buy by Courser. Schrader’s campaign intentionally chose to forgo TV ads in the general election and implement a digital strategy (and conserve cash for a potentially more competitive race in 2022 post-redistricting).

Polling can also drive a competitive narrative. While there was no public polling in the 4th, there were enough private surveys to drive interest from reporters and handicappers. There wasn’t any information, public or private, being circulated about the 5th. There just wasn’t a lot to write about in the 5th, let alone evidence it was particularly close.

In the end, the story in the two House races in Oregon was similar to what happened nationwide; fundamentals mattered most. Amid all the spending and TV ads, or lack thereof in the 5th, the presidential race was a significant driver in races down the ballot. Joe Biden carried both districts (50 percent to 46 percent in the 4th and 53 percent to 44 percent in the 5th), and Democratic incumbents won both districts.

Democrats make the case that without their intervention and DeFazio’s early ads, the 4th District race would have been much closer and the congressman may have even lost. But the final margins and the dearth of ticket-splitting nationwide show that Skarlatos was the underdog all along.

The overall GOP gains this cycle are a good reminder that the traditional measures of competitiveness (perceived candidate strength, fundraising, TV ads, spending by outside groups, and even polling) are not a substitute for fundamental partisanship.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.