Looking toward this year’s statewide elections, the Virginia Public Access Project—a nonprofit that focuses on transparency in state elections—finds that of the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, only fifteen are contested. Of the remaining 85, either the incumbents are running unopposed, or the opponents woefully underfunded. Matthew Yglesias uses this to make a point about the importance of money in politics:
People often discuss uncompetitive seats primarily through a gerrymandering lens, but I think the money is a much more important factor and one that there’s a better solution available for. If any major party nominee was guaranteed a decent amount of money, then almost every seat would be meaningfully contested. Incumbents might still be regularly re-elected (and why shouldn’t they be if they’re ideologically well-fitted to their districts) but they’d still need to hustle and try and worry that they’ll be exposed to scrutiny.
Among political scientists who study the effect of money on politics, “floors, not ceilings” is a common and easy to understand refrain: the goal of campaign finance isn’t to restrict a candidate’s ability to spend money, it’s to ensure a fair system where everyone is able to compete. The problem in Virginia, and to a large degree nationwide, is that electoral challengers are woefully underfunded. As Yglesias points out, “The quantity of meaningful elections is very driven by the imperative to raise funds and then try to allocate them ‘efficiently’ to winnable seats.” When there isn’t enough money to go around, incumbents stay untouched, challengers unsupported, and the public suffers from an impoverished debate.
Solving this problem doesn’t require anything complicated; publicly financed block grants to major party candidates—indexed to the average cost of running a competitive campaign in the area—would automatically elevate most state-level elections to something that approaches competitive. For congressional candidates, Jonathan Bernstein recommends a block grant of $500,000, with strict disclosure laws for further fundraising. I would probably include a system of supplementary public financing for those of who chose it (probably along the lines of New York City’s matching system), but the main idea is to make every race a serious contest, regardless of whether or not the incumbent wins.