After running for Congress and losing, Republican Genevieve Atwood and Democrat Kenley Brunsdale say they've found the political system is so stacked against challengers that their chances of beating incumbents are about 99 to 1.
That's because incumbents write election laws, which happen to encourage political action committee donations (which go to incumbents by a 19-1 margin). Incumbents also provide themselves free mailing privileges and large staffs to work with voters. That makes them often considered invincible by the press, volunteers and donors - which makes challengers' tasks even more difficult."If incumbents are even just barely competent, beating them is nearly impossible," Brunsdale said. Atwood added, "If you look at results nationally, the odds are 99-1 against challengers."
Not surprisingly, both say numerous reforms are needed to even the playing field.
Atwood, an avid tennis player, uses a tennis analogy to explain. "In professional tennis, most of the points are aggressively won with things like aces and shots down the line. In the type of amateur tennis that most of the rest of us play, most points are actually lost by mistakes.
"It is virtually impossible for a House challenger to aggressively win a campaign because of the obstacles they face in the system. But it is possible for an incumbent to lose. All challengers can hope to do is keep hitting the ball in the court and hope to force mistakes. We didn't get enough by Wayne (Owens) to win. All the things we could have tinkered with on our own would not have changed the result enough to matter." She lost by a 60-40 margin.
Brunsdale - who lost by a 54-46 margin - said he figures his opponent, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, made mistakes and was vulnerable, but Brunsdale couldn't come up with enough resources to exploit them. "I figure if I had another week and $50,000 more, I would have been elected to Congress."
But he said such things as a political columnist saying he had no chance to win just before the election scared away his volunteers. "They read him and believed him. So they decided there's no point in helping anymore, and went home. So we had far fewer people on the phones than we needed."
And at a critical point in his campaign, Brunsdale said he had $100,000 in commitments until a Deseret News/KSL Dan Jones & Associates poll showed him trailing badly, even though he eventually almost won. "Those commitments all disappeared immediately. It cost me $100,000. With it, I really think I would have won. Jim Hansen didn't beat me. Dan Jones did."
He said the current political system gives too much importance to early polls - which can narrow closer to an election - and reforms could change that.
"When you come out low in a poll, the first thing your opponent does is fax it to all the political action committees and tell them you don't have a chance. And it isn't just the PACs. Small donors see it and figure you don't have a chance, so they won't give you any money either. And volunteers are scared away," Brunsdale said.
He said he could likely avoid that problem when he runs again in two years - which he plans to do - because he has a record of running a viable campaign so polls will be less important.
But to help first-time challengers, he said limiting both candidates to spending about $200,000 would allow PACs to spread money around more, and reduce the importance of polls for deciding who is most likely to win and who is therefore the wisest investment.
Atwood added, "A lot of PACs will not contribute to challengers at all, and the party gives you a list of them up front. The others won't look at you either unless you have three things.
"They are: a poll that shows the incumbent is under 50 percent and you are within 10 points of him; proof that the challenger is sympathetic to the PAC's goals; and assurance from local members of the PAC that the challenger is a viable candidate."
She said the national Republican Party and national PACs also forced her to spend heavily on TV ads if she wanted their money. "They figure you're not viable unless you run TV ads - even though we won the primary without them. So we spent money on TV, and let other things go like billboards and tracking polls. Maybe if we had tracked, we could have found problem areas and corrected them."
Reforms that Atwood says are needed are limiting terms of members, limiting the term of House chairmen and the speaker, cutting staff size and cutting franked mail privileges. "Those are all things that increase the power of members over time, and help eliminate competition."
She would also favor a proposal to require TV stations to give free air time to federal candidates as a condition to receive federal licenses.
Brunsdale said, "If I were writing a campaign reform bill, it would limit campaign spending to about $200,000, allow contributions only from PACs within the state, limit individual contributions to $250 or $500 per individual and $2,000 from PACs." He adds that members of Congress should only be able to use their franking privilege to answer letters that voters send them.