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Manitowoc Herald Times

Is it election or re-election day? Incumbents rarely lose
By Brian Tumulty
November 2, 2002

Generally speaking, the eight members of Wisconsins House delegation each have a 98.5 percent chance of winning in Tuesdays congressional election.

Thats the percentage of incumbents re-elected to the House in 1998 and 2000.

But the outcome in Rep. Tom Petris race is a 100 percent certainty. The Fond du Lac Republican is running unopposed for a 13th term.

While Democrats havent endorsed Petri, he said, They dont speak as poorly of me as they do as some other Republicans.

Petri is using his campaign as an opportunity to spend extra time in the new parts of his congressional district in Dodge and Sheboygan counties.

Based on results of the most recent three elections, longtime incumbents elected before 1990 like Reps. David Obey, D-Wausau, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Menominee Falls have a 99.9 percent chance of winning.

Among the 1,150 incumbents in House races since 1996, only one of the 33 incumbents who lost was a longtime member.

The loser: Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, a 20-year incumbent who lost in 2000 to a decorated Vietnam veteran amid several campaign controversies. Obey, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is seeking his 18th term in the House. Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is running for his 13th.

I put my entire record on the line every two years, Sensenbrenner said. The reward for that is re-election. I think the re-elect rate shows that people are satisfied with incumbents.

Even junior members, like Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay; Paul Ryan, R-Janesville; and Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, rarely lose. All three are seeking a third term.

Greens first congressional race in 1998 was a rare case where an incumbent stumbled and lost freshman Democrat Jay Johnson.

Challengers have it tough

Dick Kaiser, a retired school teacher and record shop owner who is the Green Party candidate seeking to unseat Green in the 8th Congressional District, described the advantage of incumbency as obscene.

Were all taught from the fourth grade we live in the worlds greatest democracy, said Kaiser. But because of the influence of money, a lot of political speech is muffled and then quickly discredited by major media. He complained that some newspapers and other media outlets havent given his candidacy any attention, even though he is officially on Tuesdays ballot.

What were essentially saying is this is a locked-up system and theres no way to get through the door, said Kaiser, who described himself as a reform populist and not a left winger.

Andrew Becker, a 27-year-old hypnotist who also is running in the 8th Congressional District, noted that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasnt given his campaign any money even a couple of thousand dollars to mail out a fund-raising letter. Although he is a major party candidate, Becker has raised about $3,500 to Greens $769,408.

I think most of the congressmen who get re-elected get re-elected because they are doing a good job, Becker said. But you need a system that allows someone else to have a shot. The reason a candidate may not be viable is because he has no money.

Green was not available for comment, but his congressional chief of staff, Mark Graul, pointed out: Its important to remember that four years ago he was in the same position that Dick Kaiser and Andrew Becker are today. So it can be done.

In 1998 Green received significant financial help from national Republican groups, which made the freshman Democrat Johnson one of their top national targets.

Incumbents prove themselves

Obey, who has represented the 7th Congressional District since 1969, said voters tend to stick with elected officials who have proven themselves over time.

What do people do when people buy a product and like it? Obey asked. They usually keep buying it again. And I dont think politics is any different. If you like a certain brand of bread or certain brand of jam, you may stick to it. If people get to know you and like you, they stick with you.

Obey said he has had tough races many times, although hes been able to capture about 60 percent of the vote in the past several elections.

I think you wind up with an opponent who may not be the toughest in the world because people recognize if you have a good reputation and if youve done your homework, its going to be hard to beat you, he said.

Joseph Rothbauer, the Republican challenger seeking to unseat Obey, acknowledged the incumbent has a tremendous advantage.

The name recognition is tough. And when you have money like the incumbents do, they keep hammering that, Rothbauer said. Weve come to a point where we have a political ruling class.

The nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy estimates only five to eight of the 390 House incumbents seeking re-election Tuesday will lose. And four of them will be in races where two incumbents are facing off against each other in a redrawn district.

So where are the other competitive races? Forty-nine of the 435 House races involve an open seat where the incumbent is retiring, seeking another office or has died.

Campaign donations and advertising tend to flow to about two dozen most competitive races especially with control of the House at stake. Democrats need to pick six seats to gain a 218-seat majority as well as protect three vacant seats Democrats held.

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