Jayne: Witty retorts not enough to unseat a House incumbent

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

Michael Delavar had a snappy retort.

Commenting on the fact that Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has a huge fundraising advantage over her opponents for this year’s election, Delavar quipped: “But, of course, on our side we have (Herrera Beutler’s) voting record. That’s the best tool I have.”

It’s a good line. It’s funny and it’s pointed and it focuses the conversation in the direction Delavar wants voters to look. But, given the reality of politics, it will take more than witty quotes to unseat the representative from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. It will take more than fast talk to unseat any incumbent representative.

“Are you sitting down? At the worst, 90 percent of incumbents will win,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. “At best, 98 percent will win.”

At best? Best for whom?

“Best for them,” Moore said with a laugh. “That percentage has been pretty steady in most of the country for the past 40 years. It’s very difficult, barring any scandals or barring a huge change in the electorate” to unseat a member of Congress.

Of course, there are exceptions. The 1994 midterm elections swept Republicans into power in the House of Representatives, and voters in northeastern Washington even tossed out the sitting speaker of the House — Tom Foley — the only time that has happened in the history of the republic.

Some people who are prone to wishful thinking might assume that we are prepared for a similar electoral revolution this year. Congress, after all, has approval ratings lower than Donald Sterling. But when it comes time to go to the polls, the overriding mentality is one of “Congress really stinks … except for my representative. They’re OK.” As Moore pointed out, of the 435 House seats that come up for election every two years, “you usually have about 30 that are competitive.”

So, how can a challenger do it? How can an upstart mount a credible threat to somebody who has proven electability, has a fundraising advantage, and has name recognition by virtue of constantly being in the public eye? That is the challenge facing Delavar and Bob Dingethal as they take on Herrera Beutler in the Aug. 5 primary. Delavar, a Republican, is a former board member of the Clark County Republican Party and a former Washougal City Council member; Dingethal, a Democrat, is on sabbatical from his post as executive director of environmental group Gifford Pinchot Task Force.

“You’re going to have to outspend the incumbent 2-to-1,” Moore said. “You have to introduce yourself to the electorate and you have to craft a message of why that incumbent should be replaced.”

Cash on hand

That could be more difficult in this area since the 3rd Congressional District has undergone a makeover. Following the latest census, Washington added a 10th congressional district, and the 3rd lost the population center of Olympia. The practical effect was to make the district more conservative, leaving Vancouver as the only large population center.

“You have to have a credible candidate,” Moore said about challenging an incumbent. “When you had the two centers, you almost always had two credible candidates on either side.”

Which brings us back to the premise of this whole thing. To make an incumbent sweat, a challenger is going to need a couple of Brinks trucks worth of cash. But the latest financial disclosures revealed that Herrera Beutler has raised $170,178 in the first three months of this year and has more than $750,000 on hand. That’s a lot of TV, radio and newspaper ads telling us how effective she has been in Congress. Her opponents, meanwhile, have raised a combined $44,000.

Dingethal said: “Even if you raise half a million and spend it on a television ad, you don’t grab someone’s attention and belief. But when I meet someone and shake their hand, those are votes you can count on.”

Sounds about as valuable as a witty retort.