The Personal and the Political in Repeat Congressional Candidacies

Article excerpt

Analyses of the decision to run for the U.S. House are generally based on the self-reported motivations of a sample of candidates or potential candidates. In this article we take a different approach. We use a quasi-experimental design to model the decision of a losing candidate to initiate or reject an immediate repeat match-up against the person to whom they lost in the general election of the previous cycle. Of these potential repeaters we look at "strong" challengers-those who lost but secured more than 40 percent of the vote. We find the decision to repeat to be shaped at least somewhat by evaluations of the candidates chances of winning the party's nomination and her personal desires and abilities. However, when we examine only "strategic" potential repeaters-those who lost in an open seat contest the first time around-we find the decision to repeat to be driven largely by broader political or partisan trends that affect the candidate's evaluation of her chances of winning the general election. This finding confirms analyses of strategic candidates using other data.

Between 1970 and 2000, 670 general elections for the U.S. House of Representatives matched major party candidates who had faced each other in at least one House contest before. In all but one election year since 1976, at least 10 percent of incumbents faced a repeat challenger. Although not exactly frequent, then, such repeat matches are an enduring piece of congressional elections. As a consequence, they have received some scholarly attention.

The principal research question asked about these races is whether the act of repeating assists the challenger the second time around. Ackerman (1957), in his analysis of such races in the early 1950s, for example, found little net advantage accruing from a second challenge. But more recent and comprehensive studies have drawn different conclusions. Squire and Smith (1984), Mack (1998), and Renka (2001) find that from the 1960s through the 1990s some types of repeat challengers are discernibly more successful than first-timers who have similar attributes and have run similar campaigns. In each of these analyses, candidates tend to receive more money and do better in their second bid. This may be a result of the inherent advantages of repeating that allow the repeat challenger to hit the ground running-namely an extant campaign mechanism, previously cultivated contacts, and name recognition.

Many of the repeaters are political novices who neither do well nor seem to be striving for victory. As Canon (1993) argues, no single theory can really explain the motivations of such political amateurs. They seem often drawn to the rematch by an intrinsic dislike of the incumbent or the thrill of the campaign. In addition, as Maisel (1986) suggests, such repeaters may desire to curry favor with their party to improve their visibility in order to run for lower office or simply to make an ideological statement. Consider, for instance, Ted Tyler, the Republican who challenged Democratic Representative Eva clayton in her heavily black North Carolina district between 1992 and 1998. Tyler seems to have been uninterested in the long odds against a Republican victory, and campaigned extensively on an anti-government message. He surely enjoyed it, too, although perhaps not as much as John Buchanan, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in Ohio's heavily Republican Tenth District against incumbent Clarence Miller in every election between 1982 and 1990.

Certainly not all repeat challengers fit this description, however. Current or recent House members like Ted Strickland, Mark Neumann, Bill Luther, Walter Capps, James MaIoney, John Kline, and Newt Gingrich were all repeaters. For strong candidates such as these-candidates who have a reasonable chance of winning and who presumably make rational decisions in the'ir attempt to win-repeat matches are worth exploring again and with an approach different from that employed by previous work. …