WASHINGTON – Maryland congressional incumbents have more than $2.4 million left in the bank after this year’s election, giving them a fund-raising head start that is likely to intimidate potential challengers for 2002.
The state’s eight House incumbents have an average of just over $300,000 to start their presumed re-election bids, which are less than 23 months away. The war chests range from $63,693.01 for Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, to $569,886.16 held by Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore.
Political analysts said that funding is a formidable hurdle for a challenger to overcome.
“It says you’re probably going to get buried in incumbent cash if you give this a try,” said Carol Arscott, pollster for Gonzales/Arscott Research.
Don DeArmon, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R- Frederick, agreed that the main advantage for incumbents with money is that it keeps challengers from even entering the race.
“(Incumbents) start off with significant funds when the challenger has zero. That’s not an incentive to encourage challengers to take on an incumbent,” said DeArmon, a Democrat.
DeArmon said incumbents also enjoy advantages other than money, such as name recognition. Despite that, however, he said he does not think challengers need to spend more than incumbents to get their names out.
“You just have to reach a threshold, not necessarily outspend the incumbent. You have to reach the threshold to even be perceived as competitive,” DeArmon said.
Douglas Weber, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it is possible for challengers to get by with less money, because there is so much more that can sway an election.
“Money isn’t everything. There can be other factors,” Weber said. “You can have local and national issues that come up. The candidate that spends the most does not always win.”
But in most elections in Maryland this year, the big spender was the big winner. The only exception was in the 8th District, where Democratic challenger Terry Lierman spent more than $2 million in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, who spent $1.1 million.
One reason for the high spending in the Morella-Lierman race was the fact that the 8th District is in the Washington suburbs, where advertising is more expensive than in other parts of the state. That explains why Gilchrest is able to run successful campaigns on relatively little amounts of money, said Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Paul Ellington.
“Two of our members, Gilchrest and Bartlett, are in smaller media markets and don’t have the need to raise large amounts,” Ellington said.
Districts could change by the 2002 election, however, as boundaries are redrawn to reflect population shifts from the decennial census. Weber said that redistricting could actually help out challengers.
“The worst fear for incumbents in the ’90s was the ’92 election, because of redistricting,” Weber said.
He said another potential problem for incumbents is “the independently wealthy” candidate like Lierman, who financed a large part of his bid against Morella.
DeArmon took it one step further, saying that personal wealth may be “the only way to overcome” an incumbent.
“What’s required is to put up $100,000,” he said. “Do you got a $100,000 sitting around? I sure don’t.”
DeArmon who spent all but $2,975 of his campaign funds, would not commit to running again in 2002, saying only, “Never say never.” He said the most important way for challengers to get a leg up in House elections is to reform the system.
“It cries out for campaign finance reform. We need to take significant steps to level the playing field to encourage competition,” DeArmon said. “If you design a system where 98 percent of the incumbents are re-elected every time, not everyone is going to see it as a fair system.”
But Arscott said that the system is going to be hard to change.
“It is designed by people who are incumbents and don’t want to be challenged,” she said.