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Patrick Gannon: Incumbent lawmakers squash challengers in cash hunt

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RALEIGH — Chalk it up as another way that incumbent legislators in general have a distinct advantage over challengers in N.C. General Assembly races this and every other election year.

Besides the name recognition and the drawing of legislative districts to favor one political party over the other, most incumbent lawmakers also have more money than their opponents to spend on ads, mass mailings and other campaign activities.

That was clear in a recent report from the left-leaning government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina.

The group’s review of campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections shows that the 79 incumbent House and Senate members with major party opponents in November had more than $5.8 million on hand as of June 30, or an average of about $74,000. The 79 challengers to incumbents had roughly one-fifth of that, or about $1.2 million in the bank, an average of about $15,000.

That means most challengers are starting the major push toward the Nov. 4 election at a disadvantage financially.

Bob Hall, Democracy North Carolina executive director, pointed out that 55 of the 79 challengers had less than $10,000 in the bank at the end of June. That isn’t much considering the cost of advertising, which challengers need to get their names and messages out to voters.

Only six challengers in 170 House and Senate districts had more cash than their incumbent foes.

And it’s only going to get worse for challengers. Hall also said current legislators from both parties can expect windfalls of donations from political action committees, or PACs, after the General Assembly session ended last week. PACs aren’t allowed to contribute during legislative sessions and routinely give to candidates after adjournment, with more than 95 percent of the cash going to sitting lawmakers.

Hall deemed the PAC dollars “gratitude money” for incumbents’ votes during the session. He pointed out that two years ago, in the seven weeks after the July 2012 adjournment, the Duke Energy PAC sent checks to 72 legislators totaling $152,000.

He also said the chiropractors’ Healthy Network Solutions PAC wrote checks to 28 legislators worth $24,000 in August 2012, and the McGuire Woods lobby/law firm’s PAC sent $43,000 to 27 lawmakers.

Some PACs waited until after Labor Day, Hall noted. In September 2012, the First Citizens Bank PAC sent a donation to nearly every legislator – 112 checks adding up to $87,500. A week later, the Petroleum Marketers PAC wrote 48 checks to legislators for $41,250.

PACs donated $9.9 million directly to legislative candidates in 2012, according to Democracy North Carolina, and Hall expects that figure to increase this year. PACs also give directly to caucus committees — bank accounts within the Democratic and Republican parties that incumbents use to steer funds to competitive races.

Many challengers also have difficulty raising money because they are vying for office in districts drawn in such a way that they favor the other party.

Potential donors don’t jump at the opportunity to contribute cash to candidates who are unlikely to win, just like gamblers are more likely to pick favorites when they risk their money.

It all adds up to a system that rewards incumbents’ campaigns financially for the work they do in office, while making life rough for challengers come Election Day.