First, a guest poster at Talking Points Memo had a couple of posts up at these links: The Incumbent Party I and The Incumbent Party II that talks about the fact that we have three parties in this country: the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the Incumbent Party. He/she notes that the Incumbent party contains members from both parties, and that over time, their priorities become peculiarly aligned in many ways, especially around issues of self-preservation, and that this leads to an overwhelming concentration of power and advantages in the hands of incumbents. The data about uncontested primaries and races contained in Episode 1 and Episode 2shows how powerful that dynamic is in this state. As an easy reference, I would suspect that the roll of those who voted for tabling the Health Care Amendment would be a pretty accurate roster of the members of the Incumbent Party in Massachusetts.
And it’s not at all new. This has been the state of affairs at least since I moved (back) to Massachusetts in 1991. As I’ve noted before, and as David notes in Episode 2, except for the anomaly of the last election cycle, Massachusetts has been at or next to the bottom of states for contested elections. There are, as always, many reasons for this, but the primary reason has always been the overwhelming money advantage of incumbents. Back in the early 90’s, activists with what was the Commonwealth Coalition (the successor to Citizen Action following the latter’s demise), spoke with a bunch of community activists and leaders in an effort to understand why so few progressives and people of color were running for office. Most said that it was the intimidating financial hurdle needed to successfully challenge an incumbent that stopped them. Thus, joining with a bunch of activists from Western Mass. as well, the campaign for Clean Elections was born.
A public financing bill was first introduced in the legislature by then State Rep. Marc Draisen and that bill sank like a stone, so it was decided to pursue the initiative, and the rest is history. During and after the campaign, a group also affiliated with the Commonwealth Coalition called the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project released a series of reports that illustrated the dominance of money, and the interests that supplied it, over the political process here, based on analyses of candidates’ campaign finance reports. I wish they were available on line so I could link to them so you wouldn’t have to take my word for it, but they showed that incumbents tended to outspend challengers (when there were any) 2 to 1, that incumbents often raised money hand over fist in off years and even during cycles where they weren’t challenged, that Committee chairs tended to have even more of an advantage, and distributed quite a bit of their funds to colleagues as a way of preserving influence and fealty, and that campaigns, on average of course, got more expensive every year. The conclusions drawn from all this was that incumbents built war chests for insurance and challenge-avoidance, the hurdles for challengers were overwhelming, and that contributions were made by special interests not so much to support campaigns, but to preserve access and influence. Based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen since, I see no indication that any of this has changed. Sure, there are always exceptions, lots of campaigns can be run on the cheap, and some can be funded by the grassroots, but that doesn’t change the big picture.
So — public financing. That’s my suggestion for what’s needed if we want to take on the Incumbent Party. Incumbents need to be reminded that their primary constituency are their constituents, not just the leadership, not just their colleagues and not just their contributors. Contested races, where the parties compete on a relatively level playing field, are an excellent way to provide that reminder.
Yay, I learned how to post links!