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How much does it cost a major party to contest a seat in the House of Representatives?

Uncontested elections to House and Senate are relatively common in the American political system. When a popular incumbent is expected to win a large majority the opposing party can choose not to field a candidate. This contrasts with the system in (for example) the UK, when during a General election, the main parties field candidates in nearly every seat. This can mean "losing their deposit", and other costs. However, no seat is left uncontested. Even in the most safest Northern-city-working-class seat, a Conservative candidate is nominated (and loses).

A significant reason for not contesting a seat is financial. Parties in the USA choose not to waste money on contesting unwinnable seats. When a party decides not to field a candidate, how much money does it save? What is the cost of fielding a candidate to a House seat that is believed to be unwinnable?

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    One metric one could use to measure this cost would be the lowest expenditure by a winning candidate in a race contested by both major parties. – ohwilleke Aug 14 '17 at 23:38
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The requirements to get on the ballot for Congress are going to vary by state. I'll use Wisconsin as an example.

In Wisconsin, you need 1000-2000 valid signatures to get on the primary ballot. The nomination papers cannot be circulated before April 15 and must be submitted by June 1. That's an average of about 44 signatures per day to get to 2000. It's certainly in the realm of being possible to do it yourself, but it would take a significant effort if you just went door to door without using volunteers, and if you use volunteers from the party, you're taking them away from other possible uses. (Also remember that you're trying to get those signatures in a district that lopsidedly supports the opposing party - you're going to have to go to more doors than you might expect to get those signatures.)

Candidate committees in Wisconsin apparently don't have to pay the $100 filing fee that other political committees must pay. They must comply with campaign reporting requirements, but those should be relatively simple if the campaign is literally not taking in or spending any money. So, overall, you can get on the ballot without spending much of anything.

But the problem is, if you don't spend any money, you aren't going to unseat an incumbent. Especially if the seat is so safe that you wouldn't expect to have a chance to win even if you DID spend money. If you do spend money, you probably want to have a campaign treasurer and staff, and that may take resources away from other candidates who have a chance of winning.

Politically speaking, there may be a cost to losing. Losing, especially by wide margins and with little effort to win put in, might diminish a candidate in the eyes of the voters if they want to run for some other office in the future. Additionally, under Wisconsin law a candidate may not run for more than one partisan or state office in the same election, so someone can't just run for Congress in addition to, say, running for the state assembly. They'd have to give up the assembly seat to run. So it might be hard to find a good candidate who is willing to actually run for the seat.

You could put up a candidate who doesn't hold any office and who doesn't care if they lose. But putting up a totally unqualified candidate might diminish the party in the eyes of voters. Although that might not matter much for a congressional election that's already a forgone conclusion, it absolutely could matter when it comes to statewide elections which might be held at the same time. Wisconsin's 5th congressional district might not really be in play, for example, but the statewide races absolutely are; we currently have one Senator from each major party, and voted for both Obama and Trump.

  • Good answer! I'd suggest emphasizing that this is only one (fairly typical) example out of 50 separate systems. I know you lead with it, but by the time you get to the "only one race at a time" section, it's gotten lost, and not all states have that requirement. (Obama didn't resign his Senate seat until several days after he won in 2008, for example.) – Bobson Aug 15 '17 at 0:20
  • Hmm. Technically, Obama wasn't running for Senate in that election, since his seat wasn't up for another 2 years. So even if Illinois had the same requirements as Wisconsin to not run for 2 seats (I'd have to look it up), this wouldn't have violated it. (Of course, while someone might give up a Senate seat to run for President, it's fairly unlikely that someone would do so to run for Congress - that's considered a step down.) – D M Aug 15 '17 at 0:29
  • Good point. Maybe that's the real distinction - if you have the spot you can hold it, but you can't run for two at once. In which case, it might not be a real difference between states. I still suggest emphasizing that you only are discussing the one state, even if that actually isn't a difference. – Bobson Aug 15 '17 at 0:35
  • I added "under Wisconsin law" before the part about not running for more than 1 office, to make it clearer. – D M Aug 15 '17 at 0:37
  • By the way, Illinois law says "If petitions for nomination have been filed for the same person for 2 or more offices which are incompatible so that the same person could not serve in more than one of such offices if elected, that person must withdraw as a candidate for all but one of such offices within the 5 business days following the last day for petition filing." ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/… – D M Aug 15 '17 at 1:13
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It is possible to win a contested election without any spending with sufficient volunteers. Perhaps there are some filing fees (different in each state), but in general the requirements are signatures (to get on the ballot) and votes (to win).

The Georgia-6 special election cost $50 million or so, making it the most expensive House race ever. Note that the winning candidate only spent about $20 million of that. The bulk was spent by the loser.

Also see Dave Brat who spent a bit over $200,000 defeating Eric Cantor who spent $8 million. Brat spent more in the general election though.

The average spending in 2014 was $417,133 according to OpenSecrets.org. They don't have an easy way to view the lowest spending winning candidate in a contested election. It looks like Jose E. Serrano was the lowest spender in an uncontested election. Cresent Hardy's $382,087 seems to be the lowest spending by a winner outspent by his opponent. OpenSecrets.org. Some of the losing candidates are listed as spending $0.

It doesn't seem to be that expensive to qualify.

I think that the real problem in fielding candidates is the signatures. Note that these often need to be signatures from the appropriate party. I.e. to be a Republican on the primary ballot, you need signatures from registered Republicans. In some of the more lopsided districts, there may not be enough Republicans to sign. If you figure that 50% is an upper limit, as some of the listed Republicans may have moved, died, or simply may never be home, then it's easy to see how it might be difficult to find volunteers to gather signatures for a doomed effort.

  • In 2008, someone managed to unseat an incumbent while only spending $174,559 - however, said incumbent was under indictment. – D M Aug 15 '17 at 5:38

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