WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Van Hollen may have been overwhelmingly re-elected almost a month ago, but campaign manager Chuck Westover still trudges to the Democrat’s Kensington campaign headquarters every day for work.
“We still have some things to do — like community outreach and, of course, fund raising . . . these things (campaigns) are expensive,” said Westover, part of a whittled-down campaign staff of four that includes his assistant, a fund-raiser and a treasurer.
Van Hollen is not alone. All eight House incumbents from Maryland — who won easy re-election this month — still have campaign offices open and they plan to keep them open, although staffs will eventually be trimmed to just the money people.
Political experts and campaign officials said that a perpetual, if slim, campaign staff is required these days to cope with the rising costs of House races and the short two-year time span between elections.
The average cost of a winning House campaign this year — more than $1 million — is nearly twice what a winning race cost 10 years ago, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
The institute’s associate director, Steve Weissman, attributes the increase to several factors, including a growing reliance on expensive media advertising and a desire to “scare off” potential competitors by amassing an overwhelming financial advantage.
But critics argue that the focus on fund-raising is harmful because it detracts from politician’s ability to spend time on official duties.
James Browning, the executive director of Maryland Common Cause, said House candidates “have to spend a lot of time dialing for dollars” almost immediately after being elected, and “it has gotten in the way of governing.”
Rep. Albert R. Wynn agrees. The six-term Mitchellville Democrat said the rising cost of running requires House members to “spend an inordinate amount of time fund-raising” because “your next primary is 18 months away.”
“A lot of critics think that we should spend time focusing on smaller donations and not union and political action committee donations. Well, that’s all well and good, but it would take even more time for us to solicit individuals,” Wynn said.
The nation’s founders shared those concerns about the demands of House campaigns more than 200 years ago, according to David C. King, a political scientist at Harvard.
“The tension between running all the time and having electoral leeway is as old as the country,” he said. King said a draft of the Constitution called for one-year House terms, and that another year was added to in response to the perceived problem.
Some critics have argued that making House terms even longer than two years would free officeholders from the need to jump back into fund-raising immediately after an election, and give them more time to govern.
But congressional scholar Norman Ornstein points out that many U.S. senators — who serve six-year terms — engage in the campaign fund race just as soon after re-election as their House counterparts.
Senators perceive the benefit of deterring potential opponents with piles of money, Ornstein said, and others simply “get it while they can because they can.”
“And others raise money that they might not need because they can distribute it — to their parties and to colleagues who might need it — and have their favors remembered,” Ornstein said.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes is not one of those candidates. Of the 33 senators up for re-election in 2006, Sarbanes had the second-lowest campaign amount as of Sept. 30, reporting just $22,250 in his last filing with the Federal Elections Commission.
Maryland’s House members enjoy no such luxury.
Westover said that while he and his assistant will be let go on Dec. 1, Van Hollen’s campaign fund-raiser and treasurer will stay on until the next election.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, will keep his campaign office open through the 2006 election, said campaign manager and daughter Melissa Bartlett.
“You’re talking to the staff,” she said recently, adding that she will assume all campaign responsibilities except fund-raising, which will be handled by a volunteer.
In Wynn’s campaign office, “the fund-raisers have to stick around because in about a year the campaign has to have money to gear up for the next race,” said campaign manager Martin Casas.
While Casas is on staff for now, he expects to leave soon. He said non-fund-raising staffers are usually brought back to the campaign in the spring before the next election, when organization resumes its importance.
King said there is an upside to the short time between House elections. Without it, he said, politicians might “lose the discipline of the campaign” and become out of touch with the needs of their constituents.
But while he does not think that extending House terms is wise, he draws a difference between time spent interacting with constituents and time spent raising money.
“The perpetual campaign is a good thing,” he said, “but it is not the same thing as the perpetual massing of a war chest.”
-30- CNS 11-24-04