Campaign War Chests and Challenger Emergence in State Legislative Elections

Article excerpt

Recent studies examining the role of money in state legislative campaigns focus on questions related to the amounts raised, the sources of the funds, and the effects of spending on election outcomes. Little attention, however, has been given to the possible impact of money on other aspects of the electoral process-namely candidacy decisions. Political practitioners often assert that money has an important influence when incumbents collect large campaign treasuries or "war chests" for the purpose of warding off potential challengers. While several studies address the validity of this proposition in the congressional setting, few have examined it closely in state legislative races. This study considers this possibility in an analysis of incumbent funding in primary and general elections in eight states. Findings indicate that incumbents often amass war chests and these sums negatively impact challenger emergence; however, this effect is partially mitigated by legislative professionalism. The dampening effect of campaign treasuries is found to be more potent in states having the least professional legislatures.

"If you look like a 900-pound gorilla, people won't want to take you on."1

Money plays a central role in modern elections. Studies in recent years have addressed such questions as how much is raised, where it comes from, how it is spent, and most importantly, what effect it has on election outcomes. This study continues this line of inquiry but looks at the influence of money from a slightly different perspective. The focus here is not so much on how spending affects election outcomes, but instead is on how the potential to spend by a particular group of candidates influences candidacy decisions of others. Specifically, the analysis examines the possible dampening effect of incumbent campaign treasuries commonly referred to as "war chests."

It has become accepted wisdom by many political practitioners that vulnerable incumbents will attempt to raise funds far in advance of an election in an effort to deter opponents from entering the race. By having a sizable campaign treasury on hand, incumbents hope to send a signal to potential challengers that they too will have to raise a similarly large amount of money to be competitive. Two major questions surrounding this topic will be addressed: Do incumbents collect large war chests? And, if so, are these sums effective deterrents to challengers? In other words, does the size of an incumbent's war chest influence the probability that a challenger will emerge in primary and general elections? Using data from state legislative races, the analysis will determine if such effects exist, and under what conditions these effects are most pronounced.

INCUMBENCY AND COMPETITION IN ELECTIONS

Questions concerning contestation and competition generally revolve around issues of incumbency Studies consistently show that incumbents have enormous advantages in both congressional (Cover 1977; Erikson 1971; Ferejohn 1977; Jacobson 1987; Mayhew 1974) and state legislative races (Holbrook and Tidmarch 1991; Jewell and Breaux 1988, 1991). Scholarly attention has therefore centered on understanding the source of this incumbency advantage. A variety of explanations point to such factors as: perquisites of office that allow frequent contact with voters (e.g., Cain, Ferejohn, and Fiorina 1987); the ability to satisfy constituents' policy concerns (e.g., McAdams and Johannes 1988); and efforts to bring federal dollars and projects into the district (e.g., Fiorina 1989; Parker and Parker 1985; Stein and Bickers 1995).

Other research, however, is concerned with the campaign-related benefits enjoyed by incumbents. For example, various studies point to the general fundraising advantages that incumbents hold over challengers (Alexander 1992; Cassie and Breaux 1998; Herrnson 2000; Magleby and Nelson 1990; Sorauf 1992). While there is agreement among political scientists that funding disparities benefit incumbents, there is much less agreement as to the causal mechanisms which bring this about. …