State Legislators as Congressional Candidates: The Effects of Prior Experience on Legislative Recruitment and Fundraising

By Berkman, Michael; Eisenstein, James | Political Research Quarterly, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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State Legislators as Congressional Candidates: The Effects of Prior Experience on Legislative Recruitment and Fundraising


Berkman, Michael, Eisenstein, James, Political Research Quarterly


Prior research on congressional recruitment establishes that "experienced" or "quality" candidates compete more successfully for votes and money Little research, however, inquires into how type of prior experience affects strategic decisions on when to run or success once a race is undertaken. This research explores the impact of type of prior experience, focusing on state legislators who run for the U.S. House. We examine how experience affects decisions to run and money raised for all nonincumbent general election House candidates between 1988 and 1994. We find that type of prior experience matters. In particular, state legislators, especially those serving in professionalized legislatures, are more risk averse in deciding when to run. They also raise more of their money from PACs, and even more as the density of their state's interest group structure and professionalism of their legislature increases.

Research on congressional elections commonly distinguishes between nonincumbent candidates who have political experience and those who do not. Most scholars identify the experienced ones as "quality" candidates who more often win, and by larger margins (Jacobson 1990a, 1990b; Abromowitz 1991; Krasno and Greene 1988). However, with some exceptions (Green and Krasno 1988, 1990; Krasno and Green 1988; Bond, Covington, and Fleisher 1985; Lublin 1994), researchers ignore differences in the type of previous experience, relying on Jacobson's simple "experienced/inexperienced" dichotomy We focus on House candidates who served as state legislators, comparing them both to nonincumbents with other experience and to each other to enrich our understanding of how prior officeholding experience impacts congressional elections.

Political experience affects U.S. House elections in two ways. First, experienced candidates choose their races more strategically They run when their chances of winning are better, leaving the tougher races to the politically inexperienced Jacobson 1989; Krasno and Greene 1988; Bianco 1984). Second, experienced candidates raise more money Oacobson 1990a; Krasno and Green 1988; Krasno, Green, and Cowden 1994; Biersack and Wilcox 1990). But both the decision to run and fund-raising should be systematically further affected by the type of political experience. For example, research on candidacy decisions largely ignores the effects of differences in the opportunity costs of giving up the position currently held.' These costs vary widely Legislative incumbents leaving the low-paying, unprofessionalized New Hampshire legislature give up much less than their highly paid, professional Pennsylvania counterparts.

We further expect candidates for Congress with different experience both to raise varying total funds and to rely on different sources. As Herrnson (1995: 143) notes, electorally experienced candidates can draw on this experience when raising money Many candidates with electoral experience have devised fundraising strategies, made phone calls, hosted fund-raising events, and solicited PAC managers; most candidates with non-electoral experience have not. Furthermore, the overlap between the constellation of interests and political contributors concerned with the issues that fall within the jurisdiction of the office sought and the office held will vary. Thus, a district attorney running for Congress will find much less overlap in likely contributors than a state legislator. Though Hermson (1995: 143) suggests type of prior experience can affect fundraising, no empirical research examines how differences in type of political experience shape success in raising funds for a congressional race.

Our exploration of the impact of prior experience on House candidacy focuses on state legislators. By far the largest group of successful candidates, they provide an ideal starting point for such a study. We examine both how state legislators' decisions to run compare with other broad categorizations of political experience and how differences among states and their legislatures produce variation within the group of state lawmakers.

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