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Democrat's own money can't buy win over Scalise

When analyzing contests for the U.S. House of Representatives, casual observers easily can get confused by two things. One is that few people have a chance to win these contests without sufficient resources, and the second is it matters from where these resources come relative to other candidates. An announced 1st District candidate provides an object lesson concerning these points as they first day of qualification for federal elections commences.

One Jim Harlan announced that he is running as a Democrat (despite only until recently being registered as no party) for this spot against new incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Scalise. Further, Harlan reports $554,378 as of the end of June in his campaign account, while Scalise has less than a quarter of that in his. On the surface, this might indicate that Scalise has a tough reelection campaign ahead.

Go beneath and the reality is different. The modern rule of thumb is that, in order to be a competitive rather than novelty candidate, one must raise at least $500,000 for this kind of race. Harlan has achieved this and thus can compete and theoretically could win.

But having a realistic chance of winning is another matter, and the clearest indicator of the chances of success is how dispersed are contributions. That is, the more contributors a candidate has, the greater his chances are of winning, because contributing is the strongest sign of desire in a voter to see a candidate win and at least 95 percent of contributors to someone will end up voting for that candidate.

Checking the campaign finance reports shows Harlan largely has self-financed his effort. That half a million-plus may get him to 40 percent of the vote in a general election against Scalise, but he will need a lot more in the way of personal shows of support through others contributing to his campaign in order to get that last 10 percent-plus of the vote.

As an incumbent with a long history of support, Scalise will have enough money to win this race even if he gets outspent. The facet about campaign politics that creates the most misperception, often manifested in cries about regulating money raised and spent in campaigns, is the belief that money attracts votes and therefore causes wins. To think this reverses completely the way it actually works: money does not create quality in a candidate, but instead the quality of the candidate attracts money. Note that the quality candidate may not even have to spend a good portion of this money in order to win because he’ll win on the basis of his quality, not from votes getting “bought” by campaign spending.

Scalise is a high-quality candidate who in his short time has demonstrated high popularity in his conservative district and is receiving national attention. Harlan could spend much more of his own money and still, barring some weird, unforeseen event, have little chance of winning. Unless he starts receiving a lot more in donations from others, showing a critical mass of people think he is quality enough to have a chance against Scalise, he will end up just an annoyance to Scalise as the latter cruises to reelection.

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