First-time candidates struggle with financing campaigns

By Melissa Silverberg

With the results of Tuesday’s local elections tallied, people will not notice a difference who will be representing them for the next term.

In each of three local elections and the U.S. Senate race, the incumbents won by 30 percentage points or more.

In political elections there are often many difficulties facing challengers, including money, transportation, name recognition and knowledge of the political and election systems.With the results of Tuesday’s local elections tallied, people will not notice a difference in who will be representing them for the next term.

In each of three local elections and the U.S. Senate race, the incumbents won by 30 percentage points or more.

In political elections there are often many difficulties that face challengers, including money, transportation, name recognition and knowledge of the political and election systems.

These are some of the main reasons incumbents are re-elected nearly 95 percent of the time they seek office, said Michael Cheney, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Cheney did qualify this number as only an estimate and said that the 2008 election may not have such a high percentage of incumbent re-elections because of the nationwide desire for change.

Steve Cox was the democratic challenger against 8-year incumbent Tim Johnson for the 15th Congressional District of the U.S. House of Representatives. Cox lost by more than 30 points.

“It’s been a very unusual experience being a ‘novice’ on the political scene,” Cox said. “I haven’t known really what to do and what not to besides be myself.”

Raising money for a new candidate is one of the most common problems challengers face.

The Federal Election Commission requires candidates running for national office and have raised more than $5,000 to report their funds and sources, yet Cox did not even cross the $5,000 fundraising line.

With the money he did raise, he was able to purchase 500 yard signs, a small number when attempting to canvas a 22-county district.

Cox did not receive any money from the state or the national Democratic Party and said he was told that they believed his district was not viable to receive support.

“I wanted it to be grassroots and to be a candidate of the people,” Cox said. “I didn’t solicit, I just put my candidacy out there and allowed people to respond.”

Republican challenger Steve Sauerberg also lost his campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Tuesday night by nearly 40 points.

Sauerberg’s campaign faced challenges running against Durbin because he is the Senate’s Democratic Party whip and is from President-elect Barack Obama’s home state.

“It’s been hard to compete with Durbin’s splash in the airwaves, but we’ve done what we can,” says Chris Hage, Sauerberg’s campaign manager.

Since Durbin has been in office for six years, Hage said he has had that much time to build up funds for his campaign while Sauerberg started his campaign a year and a half ago.

While lack of funds for a challenger is a primary concern, transportation is also difficult for candidates who are not already in office.

“If I had to do it again I would make sure that I had someone who is more politically experienced as a campaign manager,” Cox said. “I have not been adept at connecting with the Democratic Party as much as I probably should have.”

Cox managed his entire campaign himself, from arranging speeches and debates to coordinating his own travel and advertising techniques.

“The biggest challenge was the geographic challenge and getting around 22 counties to meet as many people as I possibly could,” Cox said.

With larger ground to cover, Sauerberg experienced a difficult time traveling around the state.

“You have 365 days in a year and 102 counties to cover,” Hage said. “You aren’t going to be able to get to all of them as often as you’d like, if you can get to them at all.”

Another difficult factor to overcome when running against an incumbent is the preconception that they will automatically win again, Hage said.

Name recognition can be an added difficulty for a challenger.

The incumbent has had from two to six years to get their name and message out to the voters while challengers are starting from scratch, Cheney said.

There are also biases toward incumbents built into the political system, such as franking privileges, which allow incumbents to send mail to constituents for free.

“I’m not totally discouraged,” Cox said. “I am grateful and thankful for the show of confidence and support in me.”

Hage said that after a long campaign, he believed his candidate Sauerberg could hold his head high and know that he ran an issue-based, intellectual campaign.

“Sometimes it just takes somebody like that to run,” Hage said. “So they can make a point and get the issues across.”

Neither Cox nor Sauerberg have plans to run for political office anytime in the near future.

Other local challengers did not have any more luck overcoming the incumbency bias.

Republican challenger Janie Miller-Jones lost the race for Champaign County State’s Attorney by about 30 percent.

Republican challenger Frank Calabrese lost the race for state representative for the 103rd District, earning less than 30 percent of the votes while incumbent Naomi Jakobsson earned more than 70 percent.

“I wish the process was more open to every challenger,” Cheney said. “But we have had the incumbency bias for as many years as we have been studying politics.”