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Seattle Times

Election 2002: Why so many races lack competition
By David Postman
October 13, 2002

When Washington voters go to the polls next month they will face the slimmest pickings in 30 years as nearly one in three legislative candidates runs unopposed and is guaranteed victory.

The trend has been building, and this year even some first-time candidates get a clear path to office in the 36 one-sided races among 122 state House and Senate seats up for election. In another six races, Democrats or Republicans are challenged only by third-party candidates, which historically has meant automatic election.

Competition in Washington politics is suppressed by powerful incumbents, new political boundaries, reluctant candidates and a hardening regionalism that has broken up large chunks of the state into partisan protectorates ruled by the two major parties.

Running unopposed

"We're left with a deeply divided political landscape with very few truly competitive districts," said Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman.

Though party leaders and elected officials often lament public apathy toward politics and low voter turnout, in many places around the state they aren't giving people much reason to go to the polls.

"It's unhealthy for the system," said Secretary of State Sam Reed. "It helps to have competitive districts and make candidates stand up and defend their positions and be responsive to the public."

Lawmakers elected from solidly safe districts have less incentive to compromise, said University of Washington political science Professor Bryan Jones. Homogenous districts add to the polarization of the political parties.

"If you send a bunch of ideologues to the Legislature, they would rather go back and grandstand to their constituency than compromise," Jones said.

Republicans have all but given up Seattle. Democrats have done the same across much of Eastern Washington.

With the high cost of running competitive races, party leaders on both sides say it makes little sense to field candidates in unfriendly districts.

For both parties, recruiting candidates might be more difficult this year because of the huge problems facing the state - record budget deficits, a deepening recession, chaotic transportation problems and the possibility of extra-long legislative sessions.

"Who would want to have to go deal with what the Legislature is having to face right now?" asked David Groves, spokesman for the Washington State Labor Council.

After competitive campaigns and partisan swings in the 1980s and mid-1990s, Washington has reached political stasis. With the state House and Senate held by Democrats by the closest of margins, it's unlikely there will be more than minor adjustments in the balance of power this year.

Redistricting stasis?

The lack of competition in Washington reflects national trends. According to Charlie Cook, a leading congressional analyst, only 39 of 435 U.S. House races are considered competitive this year.

The once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries is often cited as a factor.

In Washington, legislative and congressional districts are drawn by a bipartisan commission.

And "the inevitable effect is always to maximize incumbent protection," said Richard Morrill, University of Washington professor emeritus of geography. He served as a court-appointed special master to help draw redistricting plans before the current commission system was created two decades ago.

When Morrill was drafting districts under court supervision, he was prevented by a federal judge from getting input from the political parties or knowing where incumbents lived. Now the parties and incumbents stay in close contact with their party representatives on the bipartisan commission that redraws election districts after each census.

Today, after a year of studying maps and drawing lines, the political parties, candidates and consultants know where their strengths are in the playing field.

"It wasn't meant to be level, at least not level everywhere," said Stan Shore, a consultant for Senate Republicans. "Each caucus knows where they think they have the lay of the land to their advantage, and they are putting money in those locations."

There are two Republicans running for legislative seats within the city limits of Seattle. Neither got many votes in the September primary, and party officials give them little chance of winning.

George W. Bush got 20 percent of the vote in Seattle in 2000.

"The Republican vote in Seattle has just cratered," said Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "We just can't find anybody who is willing to go out and run, knowing they are going to lose in the city of Seattle."

Once again - the divide

Vance said some Republicans are frustrated by the retreat from the city.

"They say, 'Well, if we just try harder.' You know what? Politics is not football," he said. "It doesn't matter how good a campaign a Republican runs in Seattle. The overwhelming majority of people in Seattle don't agree with us. They aren't going to vote for us. They shouldn't vote for us."

Currently there are four Democratic legislators from Eastern Washington, three from the same liberal, downtown Spokane district.

State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt used to try to find a Democrat to run in every Eastern Washington district.

"I grew up in Pend Oreille County, so this is something near and dear to me," said Berendt, whose father was a Democratic county commissioner.

Democrats made gains east of the mountains during the 1980s, but "it was always swimming against the tide," he said.

Then came the 1994 election, when Democrats ran into what Berendt calls a Republican "buzz saw." By pounding Democrats on issues such as gun control, gay rights, abortion and the environment, Berendt said, the Republicans stole away much of Democratic Party's blue-collar support in Eastern Washington.

"Things have never been the same since," he said.

Berendt said Democrats tried an Eastern Washington comeback in 1996 but fell flat. Now, he acknowledged, the Democrats do not make a big effort to recruit candidates there - largely because it has become impossible for Democrats to raise the kind of money needed to run competitive races.

Vote returns show how difficult it is for Democrats over there and Republicans over here.

"As a consequence, very few people want to go out and be a sacrificial lamb," said Reed, the secretary of state. "Why waste a year of your life? Why waste the money of your friends and family?"

But even in what appear to be competitive districts, the parties didn't always field candidates.

For instance, in two key suburban King County districts where there were open seats, the Democrats have no one on the ballot. Berendt said that happened only because his candidates dropped out late and the party was unable to find replacements.

"I don't understand that," said Jones, the UW professor. "It would seem to me the parties would want to contest those districts rather than playing only to the faithful choir."

With so many uncontested races, special-interest groups are able to focus extra attention on the few races that are competitive.

Groves said the labor council has hired volunteer coordinators to help with campaigns in 17 districts this year.

"In a perfect world, we'd have 49 competitive districts and volunteers in each of those," said Groves. "But it's never going to make sense for us to have a volunteer coordinator in Okanogan County."

Congressional competition?

There are opponents in all of Washington's nine congressional races this year. But so far that hasn't created much sense of competition. This could be the first year since 1990 that there will be no turnover in the delegation.

In 1994, Washington voters awarded seven of its nine congressional seats to the newly elected GOP majority, a swing so notable former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proclaimed Washington state "ground zero of the Republican revolution."

There's no revolution brewing this year.

Berendt said it's not worth the party spending a lot of money on races it knows it can't win. Candidates don't always understand. Berendt said that Craig Mason, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, in the 4th Congressional District is angry that more party money hasn't been sent his way.

"He thinks I'm stomping on the oxygen hose," Berendt said.

The most competitive race appears to be Republican Norma Smith's challenge to freshman Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, in northwest Washington's 2nd Congressional District. While national Republicans may send money to help Smith, as of the end of August Larsen had more than 12 times the cash, and national analysts do not list Larsen as a vulnerable incumbent.

Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute agrees redistricting has protected incumbents, here and across the country.

"In most states, the parties work out their own little marriage of convenience," he said. "We'll protect our incumbents, you protect your incumbents."

Then there is the cost of campaigning. To run a competitive House campaign against an incumbent, a candidate needs $700,000 to $1 million in urban districts and $300,000 to $500,000 in less urban areas - a full-time fund-raising job.

"The money itself is huge," Ornstein said. "It is a daunting obstacle for all except a limited number of people."

And it may just not be much fun to run against a well-financed incumbent.

"You go in knowing they are going to strip the bark off of you," Ornstein said

Tomorrow: Incumbents without competition still rake in the money.

Information from staff reporters Ralph Thomas and Katherine Pfleger is included in this report .

 


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