Uncontested: One of the worst words in a democracy

uncontested electionIt has always been hard to unseat an incumbent candidate. The advantages of already possessing a legislative title like State Representative or State Senator are immense. But you know what makes unseating incumbents even more difficult? Allowing them to run unopposed.

In Missouri this year, 72 incumbent candidates for seats in the State Legislature are running without an opponent in the general election. Of those, 53 are Republicans, and 19 are Democrats.  The Missouri legislature has 163 total members. Currently, 117 are Republicans, and 45 are Democrats.

That’s a lot of non-competition in a country that calls itself a democracy.

Missouri’s legislature is dominated by Republicans, who wield their veto-proof majority like a weapon of mass destruction. Our Democratic Governor, Jay Nixon, has been virtually powerless to stop some of the incredibly short-sighted, unfair and damaging legislation passed by the Missouri House and Senate. Examples? This year, Missouri lawmakers passed a Stand-Your-Ground law that is the first such piece of legislation passed anywhere since the ignominious George-Zimmerman-Trayvon-Martin shooting of 2012. They also passed a no-permit-needed-concealed-carry law. Missouri has officially joined the ranks of the most right-wing legislatures in the country.

Clearly, some Missouri legislators need replacing. The usual factors stand in the way: blatant gerrymandering of legislative districts; the built-in name recognition and institutional power of incumbency; the connections to lobbyists, power-brokers and funders.

But by far the best way to get elected is to not have an opponent. So, it’s sad to see that, in so many of Missouri’s state legislative districts, no one has stepped forward to offer opposition in the general election. In so many cases, the stopper is a sense of hopelessness: the belief that there is simply no way to win. Plus, why put yourself out there—exposing yourself and possibly your family to the public abuse that has become a routine part of campaigns– if you’re just going to lose, anyway?

Money is a big issue, too, and campaign costs are escalating. Even the most local races are spending more than ever. Some candidates for state legislative positions are amassing campaign war chests of unprecedented size. I’m guessing that some are piling up the money as a way of demonstrating that opposition is fruitless. Also, knowing that they don’t really need all that money to run against nobody, many will probably share the bounty with other like-minded campaigns, as a way of building power alliances that will come in handy later.

Here are a few numbers [from Missouri Times]:

Sheila Solon, running uncontested in the general election for a safe Republican seat in House District 31 has $93,084.13 in her campaign fund.

Mike Bernskoetter, running uncontested in the general election in the overwhelmingly Republican 59th House District, has amassed $63,379.72 in campaign funds.

Bonnaye Mims, running uncontested in the general election in the predominantly Democratic 27th House District, has $32,656.95 in her campaign treasury.

Of course, uncontested elections are not confined to Missouri. Unfortunately, they may be on the rise, and some observers say that gerrymandering is the main culprit.

  • According to Richard Winger, of Ballot Access News, in 2012, there were 5,984 regularly scheduled state Senate and House races. About 2,000 of those were in districts where the candidates ran unopposed. Winger says that about 33 percent of all state legislative-district elections in 2012 had only one candidate per seat in the race—and  it’s likely that the vast majority of those candidates were incumbents running unopposed. Many of those races can be won with a mere 3,000 to 5,000 votes or so, depending on the year.
  • In 2014, one-third of candidates for the Texas legislature ran unopposed, according to Burnt Orange Report.
  • In 2016 elections in Illinois, “even if Republicans win every race where they have a candidate, they cannot win back control of the chamber. That’s because there are too many races where Democrats have an unopposed candidate,” Ballotpedia says of House elections.
  • In the Illinois Senate this year, “of the 40 districts up for election, 30 have already been decided because of unopposed candidates,” says Ballotpedia.

I understand why people, on both the Democratic and Republican sides, choose not to run. I wish, though, that Democrats—especially progressive Democrats– would at least try—if only to counteract the right-wing message that dominates Missouri elections and politics. This year, especially with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, there may be an opportunity for Dems to switch some seats—but that won’t happen when there’s no one listed on the Democratic side of the ballot. It’s sad for Missouri and for small-d democracy, too.