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Campaign culture, entrenched parties hurt democratic process

By   /   October 18, 2012  /   1 Comment

UNOPPOSED: Pennsylvania’s House has 203 districts and nearly half have unopposed incumbents seeking election on Nov. 6.

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Nothing in the Constitutionor even the dictionary definition of “democracy” says elected officials must put up a fight to keep their seats.

But a rigid campaign culture can keep would-be candidates from challenging the status quo, leaving candidates unopposed.

Of the 203 state House races, 96 are unopposed. Nine of 25 are unopposed in state Senate races. In both cases, the majority running unopposed are incumbents. Click here for a full list of candidates.

Critics say entrenched practices deter challengers and third parties from entering the race.

“It is shameful, in a democratic sense, that so many races are unopposed, important seats, like the Legislature, where there are so many reforms that we need” said Carl Romanelli, chairman of the Pennsylvania’s Green Party and one-time Senate hopeful.

In many unopposed races, a strong party in one region may deter its opposition from putting up a candidate. For example, the majority of the House delegation running this year in Philadelphia is unopposed Democrats, and in northern Pennsylvania, incumbent Republicans run unopposed.

This does not sit well with Romanelli.

He said third parties should mobilize candidates to run against unopposed incumbents. In the past, the state’s Green Party has done this to present a different set of views to voters, he said.

“From a consumer point of view, we do not have that choice on the ballot,” Romanelli said. “It so perverts what masquerades as political discourse. All you get is this one-sided argument or these nonsense divisive issues that have very little to do with reality.”

Recently, the party generally has refrained from entering candidates after too many expensive legal battles challenging third-party ballot access petitions, Romanelli said. In Pennsylvania, the signature threshold for third-party candidates is much higher than that of Republicans and Democrats, but those who meet it could be challenged.

One such challenge nearly kept Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson off Pennsylvania’s ballot this year.

Romanelli said he hopes to run Green Party candidates in next election season — and he’s pressed the Legislature for ballot access reform.

Olivia Thorne, president of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, said it’s “a tragedy” that so many races end up unopposed.

“If you have this many people running unopposed, it’s very hard to change the complexion of anything,” she said.

Thorne said the redistricting process is essential to making sure everyone’s voice is heard.

“What we’re concerned about, always, in redistricting is that they’re making non-competitive races,” Thorne said. “Are you making it so that it’s almost impossible to run anybody against somebody?”

Pennsylvania’s most recent legislative redistricting process has been a fairly unprecedented legal saga. Lawmakers are waiting on a second decision from the state Supreme Court, if the maps are constitutional in the shape of the districts.

Thorne also points to negative campaigning as one reason potential challengers might not step up. In her eastern Pennsylvania district, she said she received two attack ad mailers from state candidates criticizing the opponent, but not a lick of where they stand on pressing issues like education and health care.

It’s a “sad commentary” on the modern political process, she said.

The league once ran a workshop to teach people to run for office, because municipal councils did not have enough candidates to fill the seats, she said.

“People don’t want to be criticized. They want to feel that their families are kept separate from what they’re doing, especially if they’ve got school-aged kids who may not understand about why people are saying bad things about their mom or dad,” Thorne said.

The league runs Smart Voter, an online catalog that asks candidates to lay out their biography and major issues points. They are prohibited from saying anything about their opponent, if they have one.

Many candidates have not responded, to date. But of the ones who do, most are running contested races, rather than those without an opponent.

“They’re so used to bashing the other guy they’re not used to talking about the issues,” Thorne said.

Valerie Caras, director of communications for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said campaigns turn negative because, races come down to “critical issues” or an incumbent’s record.

“Politics is a contact sport,” Caras said.

Caras said the House and Senate Republican Campaign committees will often work with local officials to pick candidates. The choice comes down to someone who will work hard and can raise funds, she said, as well as how their position fits within the political makeup of a particular district.

“Voter registration plays a factor, but Republicans have won seats where we’re out-registered,” she said.

Jessica Cosme, deputy executive director of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said parties do look at the status of an incumbent before deciding whether to run a challenger.

“If nobody’s willing to stand up and run against them and nobody feels the need to do so, then they’re probably serving their constituents well and doing what their constituents want,” she said.

On the flip, some candidates run knowing the district may swing the opposite direction because of a particular or because they want to give voters an option, Cosme said.

Should candidates find themselves unopposed, they still have a role to play come election season, Cosme said. Two, in fact.

“It’s a time where they can reintroduce themselves to their constituents,” she said. “The other part is, a lot of times unopposed candidates, they’re there helping to elect other people that will also represent their district well.”

This story was corrected at 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 19 to correctly reflect the number of Senate races.


Melissa formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.