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The Incumbency Problem Has Everything to do with Money

As Court watchers eagerly await the latest decision on campaign finance in Citizens United

Cross-post from The Hill’s Congress Blog.

As Court watchers eagerly await the latest decision on campaign finance in a case called Citizens United, new research from the Brennan Center indicates that the Roberts’ Court’s first campaign finance decision three years ago, Randall v. Sorrell, suffered from a key empirical flaw. In that case, the Court wrongly assumed that low contribution limits hurt challengers and entrenched incumbents.

This misperception is still widely shared. At the Brennan Center’s recent conference, “New Horizons for Reform,” panelist Professor Allison Hayward, a skeptic of campaign finance reform, asked whether reformers should really focus more on incumbency than they do on limits on money in politics. This is a false dichotomy. The Brennan Center has long worked to address both money in politics and the strength of incumbency. Our work on campaign finance reform, redistricting and voting rights is intended to assure that the basic structures of democracy are geared to truly capture the voters’ collective will, so that those incumbents who no longer serve the public will face a realistic prospect of electoral defeat.

Incumbency, by itself, doesn’t actually show the health or illness of a democracy. After all, the fact that the same people get reelected over and over could mean that the voting public is supremely satisfied with the particular people who are in power. Or, high incumbency rates could indicate that the rules of the game have been rigged by self-serving elected officials to keep challengers at bay, so that voters are not given a meaningful choice at the ballot box.

Recent work by the Brennan Center inspired by the Randall decision examined the power of incumbency for state assembly races in 42 states over a 26-year period (1980–2006). Like incumbency rates for Congress, incumbency rates for state assembly races hover around 95 percent. What policies bite into these incumbency rates and make elections more competitive, with more candidates, more viable challengers, more close elections and more winning challengers? Simply put, the new research reveals that both low contribution limits and public financing reduce the power of incumbents.

The incumbency rate for state legislative races is an important fact of political life. Firstly, as we are all rediscovering in this recession’s state budgeting season, the lawmakers sitting in our state capitols have enormous power. They decide the answers to many of the big policy questions of the day, including: how high are our taxes; how much does transportation cost; is health care available to our children; are the public schools adequately funded, is our infrastructure maintained, and are seniors cared for with dignity?

Furthermore, state lawmakers are the farm teams for our national political parties. Without fresh talent at the state level, the national talent pool stagnates. Majority Leader Harry Reid started in the Nevada State Assembly. Minority Whip Eric Cantor started in the Virginia House of Delegates. And the most famous example, President Obama was a state senator from Illinois just 5 years ago.

State legislative races are one of the key entry points for our future leaders. So this 95 percent incumbency rate should concern us. But, contrary to Hayward’s suggestion, the solutions to this problem cannot be decoupled from the question of money in politics. One of the reasons incumbents win is they are able to ask the people who appear before their legislative committees for campaign contributions. In many states, officeholders can ask for such contributions directly before key legislative votes.

Money in politics and high incumbency are in fact two sides of the same coin. Our study showed that incumbents on average out-raise challengers in campaign funds by a margin of 4-to-1. But our study found that low contribution limits cut into this advantage and help challengers. With lower contribution limits, incumbents cannot amass the types of war chests that scare away potential challengers.

Public financing programs, like those available to candidates in Arizona, Maine, Connecticut and Minnesota also improve competition, and help challengers by giving them access to adequate funds to run a campaign. Therefore, to keep state elections democratic, vibrant and competitive, the Brennan Center suggests states should couple these reforms and adopt lower contributions and public financing at the same time. And we hope that next time, the Supreme Court will not assume it knows the impact of a campaign finance reform before the facts are really in.