NORBERT RICHTER, an engineer whose business is the construction of ultra-light turbine helicopters, has a knack for getting innovative contraptions off the ground. That skill may prove handy as he attempts to gain altitude for a different sort of vehicle: a scheme to disrupt the shield of incumbency that makes it almost impossible to dislodge a sitting member of Congress.
Richter has created Fire Your Congressman, a political action committee designed to help candidates of any party who challenge incumbent senators and representatives.
The near-invulnerability of congressional incumbents is one of the most demoralizing phenomena in US politics. Richter, a resident of Gainesville in Florida’s 3rd congressional district, got a first-hand taste of that demoralization in 2016. He had been thinking of running in the Republican primary against US Representative Ted Yoho, and was astonished at how the party mobilized to shelter the incumbent from challenge.
“I was aghast,” Richter told me in a recent conversation. “The party had no interest in allowing competition.” The GOP establishment made clear, he says, that it would thwart his efforts to raise funds or schedule debates. Yoho had a hefty campaign war chest, name recognition, and access to party loyalists with deep pockets. Richter soon realized that he couldn’t hope to raise enough money to run a credible race. In the end, Yoho faced no primary opponent. In November, he was easily re-elected from his safe GOP district.
And that, Richter learned as he analyzed his experience, was typical.
Americans despise Congress, yet most incumbents are routinely returned to office. On Election Day in 2016, congressional job approval averaged a miserable 15 percent in national polls. Yet only eight of the 388 members of the House of Representatives running for re-election that day were defeated; five others had previously been ousted in primaries. In short, 97 percent of House incumbents seeking another term had been re-elected. And of the 29 senators on the ballot, 93 percent prevailed.
“In a year that was defined by a political outsider, Donald Trump, winning the presidency,” wrote political scientist Larry Sabato, “it was still a really good year to run as an incumbent.”
It’s always a really good year to run as an incumbent. In the abstract, Americans cherish their power to throw the bums out. But the bums rarely have anything to worry about, so barricaded are they behind the advantages of incumbency — gerrymandered districts, local media coverage, franked mail privileges, government-paid staff, and, the flow of campaign contributions from those willing to pay for access and goodwill.
The only way to curtail the lopsidedly pro-incumbent dynamic in American elections, Richter decided, is with a counterflow of contributions to challengers. That’s the idea behind Fire Your Congressman, his newly launched PAC.
Here’s how it works: Donors wishing to remove incumbent members of Congress contribute to the PAC, which creates pools of money to be spent in support of challengers. Donations can be made to pools targeting specific incumbents, or to a general pool that will be used against a “Top 10” list of sitting lawmakers — five Democrats, five Republicans — that PAC researchers determine to be the highest priority for defeat.
In its first weeks, the fledgling PAC has received only contributions from small-dollar donors, but those dollars are trickling in. (The total to date, according to Richter, is in “the low tens of thousands.”) Most of the money has been earmarked for pools to defeat two Florida House members: Yoho, the Gainesville Republican, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the South Florida Democrat. “I haven’t had a million-dollar donor come up to me yet,” Richter says, but he is hopeful that as word spreads, Fire Your Congressman will become a significant vehicle for challenging heretofore untouchable incumbents.
Richter emphasizes the PAC’s nonpartisan structure. “Libertarian, Berniecrat, super-right-winger, conventional liberal — it doesn’t matter” where a donor falls on the spectrum, he stresses. “If you are fed up with incumbents, if you want to support challengers, we can help.”
Why would donors funnel campaign contributions through Fire Your Congressman PAC rather than give directly to the campaigns of individual challengers? For two reasons, says Richter.
First, so a war chest can be amassed against an incumbent even before a credible challenger emerges. In some cases, the knowledge that a pool of funds already exists may give challengers the reassurance to get into a race that might otherwise be unrealistic.
The second advantage to channeling contributions through the PAC? To prevent angry incumbents from taking revenge.
The PAC’s website makes the point explicitly: “Challengers can find fundraising particularly difficult, because potential donors are concerned about losing favor with their incumbent representative if they publicly donate to an opponent.” Since money given to the PAC is not reported to the Federal Election Commission as a donation against any named lawmaker, donors can “maintain their relationship with incumbents, while making undisclosed donations against them.”
The pro-incumbent bias in American politics won’t be dismantled overnight. Ultimately it can be whittled away only by emboldening and strengthening challengers. Fire Your Congressman gives fed-up voters a way to leverage the power of money against the fortress of incumbency. Can Richter make it fly? It’s way too soon to know for sure, but I’m rooting for the engineer.