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Stevens Point Journal

Obey a virtual 'shoo-in' Nov. 5
By Brian Tumulty
October 30, 2002

If the past three elections for the House of Representatives are a guide, Rep. David Obey has less than a 10th of a percentage point chance of losing on Election Day.

"He would have to stumble; he would have to do something different," said Robert Richie, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy. The center has analyzed past congressional election results.

Only one of 1,150 incumbents in House races since 1996 was a congressman with long-time seniority who lost.

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.

Only 33 incumbents have lost House races since 1996, and 28 served three terms or less. Former one-term Democratic Rep. Jay Johnson of Green Bay was one of those losers in 1998 when Republican challenger Mark Green unseated him.

Election handicappers such as the Cook Political Report and Congressional Quarterly consider Obey, a Wausau Democrat seeking his 18th House term, a shoo-in.

Unlike Gejdenson in 2000, nary a controversy dogs Obey.

Richie's organization also predicts all four Democratic and four Republican incumbents seeking re-election in Wisconsin's eight congressional districts will win comfortably Tuesday.

The closest race is projected in the 2nd Congressional District, where Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, might get 54 percent of the vote, according to Richie's group.

Joseph Rothbauer, the Republican challenger seeking to unseat Obey, acknowledged he has a tremendous battle.

"The name recognition is tough. And when you have money like the incumbents do, they keep hammering that," Rothbauer said. "We've come to a point where we have a political ruling class." Obey's campaign committee recently spent $169,800 for radio, TV and newspaper ads. Rothbauer estimates he has spent less than $10,000 for advertising.

Instead, the 29-year-old Republican from Bloomer, near Eau Claire, has done most of his campaigning in a 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix, logging an estimated 45,000 miles around the 20-county congressional district since mid-April.

Obey said voters tend to stick with elected officials who have proven themselves.

"What do people do when people buy a product and like it?" Obey asked. "They usually keep buying it again. And I don't 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 noted he has had tough races many times in the past, although he's been able to capture about 60 percent of the vote in the past several election cycles.

"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 a good organization and if you've done your homework, it's going to be hard to beat you," he said.

Another example of the lopsided race: fund raising.

Through Sept. 30, Obey's campaign committee received $860,027 in net contributions and had spent about $585,083.

Last month Obey's campaign gave $80,000 of what it described as "excess campaign funds" to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That was on top of $40,000 in dues paid to the DCCC in the past two years because of Obey's position as senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Flush with cash, Obey's committee even made $7,000 in charitable donations to the ex-WorldCom Employees Assistance Fund and $3,000 to the Enron Employees Transition Fund.

In August, his campaign spent $26,500 for polling by Peter D. Hart Research Associates of Washington, D.C., a well-respected Democratic pollster who also does work for the AFL-CIO.

Rothbauer, on the other hand, raised $16,641 through Sept. 30.

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