Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Campaign Finance Laws and Candidacy Decisions in State Legislative Elections

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Campaign Finance Laws and Candidacy Decisions in State Legislative Elections

Article excerpt

This article examines the influence of campaign election laws on patterns of candidacy in state legislative elections. Previous studies demonstrate that restrictions on campaign contributions affect levels of campaign spending and competition, but do such legal conditions influence the likelihood that incumbents running for reelection are even challenged? How important is this effect relative to other factors, such as ballot access laws and district political variables, in influencing rates of contestation in primary and general elections? Analyses of state- and district-level features in 1994, 1996, and 1998 show that low contribution limits increase challenger emergence in general elections.

Keywords: elections; campaigns; financing; legislatures; states; laws

This article examines the influence of campaign finance laws on patterns of candidacy in state legislative elections. Fundamental to electoral competition are the decisions by candidates to seek elective office; however, few studies consider the influence of various legal conditions that may serve to inhibit or enhance candidacy. Several factors on both the state and district levels will be taken into account; however, one of the most important for this analysis is the potential effect of campaign finance laws. Previous studies demonstrate that restrictions on campaign contributions vary dramatically from state to state (e.g., Alexander 1991; Gross and Goidel 2003; Jones 1984; Malbin and Gais 1998; Schultz 2002; Thompson and Moncrief 1998; Witko 2005), and such variation affects levels of campaign spending (Hogan 2000) and electoral competition (e.g., Gross, Goidel, and Shields 2002; Stratmann 2002). But how do such conditions influence the likelihood that candidates will decide to run? Do restrictions on funding sources have any effect on the probability that elections are contested? The present analysis considers this question in a district-level analysis of lower house elections to the state legislature across three election cycles in the 1990s.

Effects on Candidacy Decisions

The major candidacy decision examined in this analysis is the choice to challenge a sitting incumbent. Given the frequency with which incumbents seek to retain their seats, this type of election would appear to be a logical first step in determining the effects of campaign finance laws. Indeed, a variety of studies have identified a number of factors that affect the likelihood of challenger emergence, ranging from institutional characteristics and district-level conditions (e.g., Squire 2000; Van Dunk and Weber 1997) to candidate characteristics (Pritchard 1992; Holbrook and Tidmarch 1993) and campaign war chests (e.g., Hogan 2001). The general finding from these studies is that district and institutional factors play a large role in influencing candidacy decisions.

In the present analysis, the concern is with campaign finance laws as they may influence candidates' potential fundraising efforts. Many candidates in state elections report that the onerous task of fund-raising is a major deterrent to running for office (Faucheux and Herrnson 1999; Maisel, Stone, and Maestas 2001; Moncrief, Squire, and Jewell 2001). What is unclear is how campaign finance laws might play a role in this process, particularly among those thinking of challenging a sitting incumbent. Do campaign finance laws make it more or less likely that a contested race will occur? One school of thought suggests that challengers are less likely to emerge in states where contribution limits are low. Challengers nearly always have difficulty raising money to defeat incumbents, and contribution limits will simply make their jobs that much harder. Another school of thought, however, suggests that challengers are more likely to emerge in states where contribution limits are low, since this puts all candidates more or less on equal footing. We believe that this latter perspective is more accurate, given that incumbents are the major recipients of contributions from organizations (Cassie and Thompson 1998; Jones and Borris 1985; Sabato 1985). …

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