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Unopposed candidates a cause for concern?
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — For 39 people running for the state Legislature — nearly a third of all races — the November election is essentially over.
They have no opponent.
It's the largest number of unopposed candidates in at least 36 years. And it's no one-time blip, but rather a decades-old trend that's increasing over time.
Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz says it's nothing to fret over. "I wouldn't say people should worry," he said. "I think in Washington state, Democrats and Republicans are competing on the issues and are posing viable alternatives to the people."
But he speaks from a position of comfort. Most of the unopposed candidates are Democrats, and the party already controls the state House, Senate and governor's office.
Others express concern. "I think there is something wrong with our system and this is another indicator of it," said Bryan Jones, a political-science professor at the University of Washington. "It just gives me real heartburn."
Those facing no challenger in the November election include:
• House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam
• House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle
• House Finance Chairman Jim McIntire, D-Seattle
• House Deputy Republican Leader Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee
• Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee
Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican, also said he finds the number of uncontested races troubling.
Competition "is a very important part of the process. It makes us better public servants to be questioned and challenged," he said. "And I have seen a number of times when somebody is not expected to have a chance and they end up winning. That's not happening much anymore because they [the parties] don't field candidates."
Critics contend the lack of competition can lead to a less-responsive Legislature because politicians who don't have to worry about getting kicked out of office are less likely to listen to their voters.
Unopposed candidates in safe seats also can have disproportionate influence in Olympia. They tend to stick around in office longer, and gain power through longevity. Plus they can raise buckets of cash they don't need and give it back to their party — another measure of political clout.
So far this year, incumbents with no opponents have raised about $1.5 million, and the election is still nearly three months away.
Apparent factors behind the lack of competition include the increasing cost of campaigning, the preponderance of so-called safe districts where one party dominates, and the fact that the deck is stacked in favor of incumbents.
The amount of money spent by winning candidates increased more than 200 percent between 1984 and 2004, to more than $98,000 each on average. In hotly contested races, costs can soar to several hundred thousand dollars.
"Running for the Legislature is a major sacrifice," said Paul Berendt, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. "There was a time when there wasn't that much money involved and you didn't have to sacrifice your career in order to run for the Legislature, and that is becoming less the case now."
Matt Rice, of Gig Harbor, ran as a Republican against Democratic Rep. Pat Lantz in 2004 and lost. He considered running again this year but decided not to. Another person is running for his party.
Rice said he decided he shouldn't take time away from his job as the chief medical officer for Northwest Emergency Physicians. And his family wasn't eager for him to run either, he said.
"Families pay a lot bigger price in this than people ever look at. It's less time at home. You get calls from people who are really kooks and are mean," he said. "It takes a toll on them."
In addition to the financial and personal costs challengers have to deal with, some say redistricting — the redrawing of election district boundaries every 10 years — has created more safe districts where a particular party is virtually assured of winning.
There's also a certain amount of "self-selection geography" going on, said Todd Donovan, who teaches political science at Western Washington University. "If all the people who keep [moving] to the west side are more disposed to be liberal and the people on the east side are more conservative, it gets really hard to create competitive seats."
Then there's the power of incumbency. Politicians are hard to defeat once they get into office. They have name recognition, a track record in office and, more importantly, the ability to raise lots of money. Contributors are inclined to donate to sitting legislators who are more likely to win another term.
State records show the money gap between incumbents and challengers has steadily increased. In 1978, challengers spent about 13 percent less than incumbents. By 2004 they spent 38 percent less on average.
In most cases, incumbents with little or no competition don't stop raising money. Instead, they often funnel those donations to their party to help others get elected.
In 1996, lawmakers in both parties gave back more than $600,000 to help their party win seats. In 2004, they gave back more than $2 million.
Nowadays, only a small portion of legislative races are truly competitive. They tend to be in a handful of swing districts where voters could go for candidates from either party.
Given the stakes, parties are being careful where they pick their battles.
"We didn't do a lot of recruiting in areas we didn't think we could win," said Kevin Carns, political director for the House Republican Organizational Committee. "This year it was a strategic decision not to recruit in every district in the state. ... We recruited where we thought we could win."
The number of unopposed candidates varies by election. Presidential elections tend to bring out more legislative candidates than off-cycle elections do, but the overall trend has been upward.
The lack of competitiveness follows a national pattern. Only a small percentage of this year's 435 U.S. House races, for example, are expected to be truly competitive, even where both parties are fielding candidates.
This year, 37 incumbents in the state Legislature have no primary or general-election challenger. Two additional races have competitive primaries, but there's nobody waiting for the winner in the general election.
There's no consensus whether the trend will continue.
"All of this is speculation on all of our parts," said Diane Tebelius, chairwoman of the state Republican Party.
For now, "in large parts of the state we are effectively a single-party democracy," said Chris Vance, who used to chair the state Republican Party and is now a consultant at The Gallatin Group.
"It's not healthy for a democracy," he said. "I don't know what to do about it, but it's true."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company