published Monday, May 21st, 2012

Georgia incumbents hard to push out of Legislature

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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    The Georgia State Capitol building located in Atlanta, Ga
    Staff File Photo

ATLANTA -- Hundreds of candidates will swarm the Capitol this week to sign up for the 2012 legislative elections, full of optimism that they can make a difference in Atlanta.

The reality is that most challengers will be defeated -- and in some cases crushed -- by incumbent lawmakers.

As of the end of March, lawmakers who are expected to run for re-election this year and their caucus political action committees had almost $9 million in campaign funds. Some top lawmakers have hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars banked for a job that pays $17,342 a year.

Election history favors incumbents, too. More than 100 of the state's 236 lawmakers won re-election in 2010 without opposition, and only eight lost their seats. In 2006, 98 percent of Georgia lawmakers who spent more than their opponents won re-election, and incumbents typically raise more than their opponents.

That hasn't stopped a host of challengers from hoping that this year will be different, that tea party grass-roots activism, newly redrawn district lines or just plain hard work will let them pull the upset.

"It's a daunting task," said Brandon Beach, a member of the state transportation board who is taking on Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers in a North Fulton and Cherokee County district. "He has $307,000 in the bank; I have $3,000. It's an uphill battle."

How uphill?

Rogers, who already holds a 100-to-1 money advantage, has a fundraiser the day before qualifying begins Wednesday -- hosted by Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Reps. Tom Price and Rob Woodall, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams.

Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor who has studied elections for decades, said the odds of a challenger beating a state lawmaker "are very long."

While incumbents usually have better name recognition and can brag about what they've done in office, the money advantage is a huge reason for their success.

Stacks and stacks of cash

Rogers, who had $307,543 in his campaign account as of March 31 and has raised more since then, isn't the only top lawmaker with a bulging bank account.

Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who has run unopposed in all but two of his previous nine re-election bids, had $740,513 in his account, the most of any incumbent, the AJC's review of campaign reports shows.

Senate Regulated Industries Chairman David Shafer, R-Duluth, who hasn't faced opposition since winning his seat in 2002, has $515,841 in the bank.

The House member with the biggest bankroll, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had $317,897 cash on hand. He also has had limited opposition since winning his seat.

Balfour said with reapportionment last year, 25 percent of the people in his district are new to him. While he hasn't always had opposition, Balfour said he can't count on a free ride.

"You have got to assume somebody is going to run," Balfour said. "There are 150,000 people in the district. You need to have the money to get your message out."

Records showed some lawmakers didn't have enough in their accounts at the end of March to pay the $400 qualifying fee, but most had between $10,000 and $100,000 banked. And most have been raising money since then.

The Republican chamber caucuses had about $800,000 by March 31 to dole out to their candidates. And many of the big-money special interest contributions to House and Senate leaders are funneled to incumbents in need of financial help.

Money from lobbyists

Incumbents win even though voters often gripe about their performance. Various polls this year have put Congress' approval rating in the 10 to 19 percent range, and fewer than four in 10 Georgians polled by the AJC in mid-2010 gave the General Assembly positive marks.

Nonetheless, voters tend to choose the politicians they've got, in part because they know them. And getting voters to know you takes money.

Former state Rep. "Able" Mable Thomas, of Atlanta, who has both beaten incumbents and failed to unseat them in past races, said the financial disadvantage that challengers often face is huge.

"The system rewards incumbency with money and influence," said Thomas, who is running to return to the General Assembly. "What is happening with politics now, with the price to run for elected office, a lot of people who have good ideas ... are discouraged from running."

Most of the money top lawmakers raise comes from statehouse lobbyists and the people they represent. And much of it comes in the week before the session, when lawmakers raise about $1 million.

Lawmakers in top party positions or those who are chairmen of key committees rake in huge special interest contributions. Balfour's Rules Committee, for instance, decides which bills make it to the Senate floor for a vote, so it has enormous influence.

Balfour's House counterpart, John Meadows, R-Calhoun, took in $1,550 in contributions the week before the session in 2010, when he wasn't House Rules chairman. This year, he raised $40,900 that week.

Like other incumbents, Rogers said the people of his district aren't supporting him simply because he has a lot of money in his campaign account.

"The citizens in our district consider the record of the candidate and the candidates' stances on the issues," Rogers said. "No amount of money can change those things."

"A grass-roots army"

Tea party activists and others argue that a grass-roots campaign -- old-fashioned door-knocking, mail and social media -- can overcome the money disadvantage in the primaries.

They cite the recent primary loss of longtime Indiana U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar to a tea party-fueled opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, as a sign of what's ahead.

"If you have a grass-roots army, you don't need as much money," said Debbie Dooley, a co-organizer of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, which has helped recruit candidates to challenge GOP incumbents.

Beach said voters are in the mood to throw out big-money lawmakers.

"I think the citizens are tired of politicians that have these war chests that are funded by lobbyists and special interest groups," he said.

Rogers said, "The amount of resources I have raised is because citizens, business owners and employers recognize me as a champion of free markets. I sincerely appreciate the faith they have put in me through their investment."

Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, treasurer of the House Republican campaign fund, said he expects more challenges to incumbents this year, but he also argues that Republicans have pushed popular legislation, such as the bill that will phase out property taxes on cars, that bodes well for incumbents at election time.

"I think we have done a pretty good job of pushing good legislation and initiatives," Peake said.

"I don't think people are as angry at the state level as they are at the national level. I don't think there is a groundswell of negativity toward the General Assembly because we have done a darn good job."

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