Wealth of Uncontested House Races Reflects Parties' Strategies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What if they called an election and nobody ran?

That's essentially what will happen this fall in scores of congressional districts around the country where House members have limited or no opposition.

More than 80 House incumbents, including nine in California, face no major party opponents in their reelection bids--more than at any time since 1958. And by election day, the number is expected to be even larger.

This is an abrupt turnaround from the 1996 election, when only 19 House members got a free ride--fewer than in any year of the post-World War II era.

The absence of competition in so many places is the most vivid expression yet of the pro-incumbent environment that is the backdrop for this fall's election. It is a result, in part, of the difficulties political leaders have faced recruiting congressional candidates at a time when there seems to be few burning issues.

But it also stems from a deliberate strategy by both political parties to focus their resources not on fielding a candidate in every district but zeroing in on a handful of the most competitive races that could tip the narrow balance of power in the House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by only 21 seats.

It adds up to a striking political irony: At a time when control of the House is the subject of intense competition, millions of voters around the country will be offered no choice but to reelect their current representatives.

Some analysts fear that the absence of competition will undercut the incentive for voters in those districts to go to the polls in November and exacerbate their overall disengagement from national politics.

"The abdication of the parties to provide competition is dangerous," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "The abdication of the responsibility to bring debate on differing points of view down to each congressional district will--especially in states where there are no statewide contests--substantially harm turnout."

As of mid-June, when candidate filing deadlines had passed in 36 states, 83 House incumbents (51 Republicans and 32 Democrats) had no major party opposition, according to an analysis by the National Republican Congressional Committee. A Democratic study came up with a similar head count.

Some of those members face nominal opposition from third-party or write-in candidates, but the absence of a major-party opponent on the ballot is a big political boon that allows incumbents to ease up on the grueling campaign trail--or at least to husband their political capital for future fights.

"It helps," said Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), who faces only minor-party opposition in his Central California district. "We just had our first child a couple months ago, and it's allowed me to spend a lot of time" at home.

The number of free-riders is sure to grow as filing deadlines pass in the rest of the states, and may even break the postwar record. In 1950, 95 House members faced no major party competition, according to an analysis by Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

The lack of competition is a reflection of a change in the political environment. For most of the 1990s--a decade that began with a recession and was marked by intense partisan bickering in Congress--voters were seething with anti-Washington animus. They were poised to throw the bums out--and did, in large numbers, when they gave Republicans control of Congress in 1994 and nearly took it away from them in 1996.

This year, with the economy humming, voters have cooled down. Approval ratings for Congress are unusually high, and incumbents are expected to be reelected in large numbers. It is not an inviting political climate for would-be challengers.

"Potential challengers looked at the circumstances of the election year, and it did not look like a propitious one," Jacobson said. "The costs of campaigning are so high--not just in terms of money, but in terms of your life--you don't want to incur them unless prospects for winning are pretty good."

But the absence of competition in so many districts is also the result of the deliberate, potentially risky strategic decision by both parties as they wage hand-to-hand combat over control of the House. Democrats and Republicans are channeling their resources into a smaller number of races where they have the best chance of winning rather than spreading it around the country to field candidates in every district.

"Our strategy has been to focus all our energy on the most marginal races in our effort to win a net gain of 11 seats to win the majority back," said Dan Sallick, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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Republicans, to a lesser extent, have made a similar calculation. "Why waste the time?" asked Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who is a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We're not looking for a living, breathing body merely to serve as a candidate."

In California, for example, Foley said it made more sense for the GOP to spend more to win the closely contested seat opened by the retirement of Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) than to recruit someone for a quixotic campaign to defeat safe Democrats such as Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). In some cases, however, the parties have left potentially vulnerable incumbents unopposed. The GOP's biggest disappointment came when it failed to recruit an opponent against Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who hails from a district that tends to vote Republican for president. Democrats, for their part, failed to put up candidates against six GOP freshmen--despite conventional wisdom that first-termers are the easiest incumbents to defeat.

With so many unopposed incumbents, both political parties also risk missing opportunities to take advantage of unexpected changes in the political climate--nationally or locally--that could suddenly give them a shot at more incumbents. For example, in 1994, Republicans would not have been able to take advantage of the big ethics problems that suddenly engulfed former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) if they had not had a longshot candidate on the ballot, who won the seat. Rostenkowski pleaded guilty in April 1996 to two counts of misusing federal funds.

Paradoxically, the lack of competition in so many races has not resulted in any slowdown in campaign fund-raising and spending. Indeed, while the overall number of candidates running for House and Senate seats, including those who ran in primaries and those representing minor parties, has dropped sharply--from 1,839 in 1996 to 1,509 by March 31 of this year--they are spending more than ever. According to the Federal Election Commission, the amount congressional candidates have spent has jumped from $177.8 million in 1996 to $184.9 million this year, as of March 31.

In part, that is because many incumbents continue to raise money and run campaigns even if they lack an opponent.

"Every two years you'll be running again," said Rep. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of those getting a free ride this year. "A strong war chest helps."

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who is unopposed but still plans three golf fund-raisers, has asked 1996 presidential contender Steve Forbes to headline another event in the fall and has purchased billboards and yard signs. "I want to remind people I'm on the ballot," he said.

What's more, many safe incumbents raise money to give to colleagues who are facing competition. Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), who has run unopposed many times, raised $1 million for other GOP candidates in the last election and expects to do the same this year.

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