State legislative campaigns least competitive in nation, study says

The candidates with the most money in state races almost always have more than twice as much as their competitors, according to a study released by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And those with the most money almost always win.

Only in 4 out of 100 races in 2009 and 2010 did a competitor raise more than half the amount of the best-funded candidate – the lowest rate in the country. In 98 percent of the races, the biggest war chest won. And in every case that involved an incumbent, the incumbent triumphed.

The study, released last week, didn't include big money's biggest flop of 2010: Meg Whitman's record-breaking, and losing, $178.5 million campaign to become governor of California. A previous study by the institute found that self-funded candidates, like Whitman, often fail.

Still, combine incumbency and the monetary advantage – which usually go hand in hand –  and "you're pretty much unbeatable," said Peter Quist, a lead researcher for the institute.

The link among money, incumbency and winning is not new, surprising or unique to California. But the Golden State's record is far over on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, in states with public financing of elections, such as Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, more than half of the races were competitive in terms of fundraising.

Nationwide, candidates with the most money won 77 percent of the time, and incumbents won 85 percent of the races.

"The primary reason legislative elections are not very competitive in California is just because they're so expensive," Quist said. "It's just hard for a non-incumbent to get a footing on it."

That one-sided dynamic, though, is a thing of the past, said Sacramento Republican consultant Aaron McLear.

Redistricting based on the 2010 census is pitting incumbents against each other and rejiggering the political landscape. The new top-two primary system, meanwhile, has cast away the predictability of general election matchups. The "new world order of California politics" will be much more competitive, McLear said.

Before the recent changes, he said, "these races were decided by the party bosses well before the election." And when a Democrat ran in a Democrat-majority district, there was no reason to give money to the Republican.

"When you have more competitive races after the political reforms have been put in place, you'll have more competitive fundraising," he said.

Phillip Ung of California Common Cause doesn't expect such a dramatic change. Some districts will be more competitive due to redistricting, he said, but the general dynamic will stay the same.

California's elections are so expensive and lopsided, Ung said, in part because the districts are so large.

"The only real way for a candidate to get their name heard if they're an unknown candidate is to play an air war – to be on radios, be on TV," he said. "The districts are so big compared to other states that it's nearly impossible for a grassroots candidate with a lot of volunteers to hit every door."

Another incumbent advantage is the ability to set up campaign accounts and start fundraising for races four years away. Ung would like to see that practice curtailed. But given the system California has now, he said he expects big money and incumbents to keep winning.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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