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The "Congressionalization" of state legislative races.


This paper examines the phenomenon of the "Congressionalization" of state legislative races. That is, as state legislative campaigns become more expensive, use more mass media, polling, and professional political consulting, these races are looking more and more like Congressional campaigns. Although others have pointed toward a "Congressionalization" trend, there is little concrete support to prove such a trend. We provide a detailed case study of the characteristics of state legislative races in a single state in the mid-1990s. We find that although there is indeed support for the view that these races are looking more and more Congressional-like, state legislative races are still distinctive in a number of important ways. [C] 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Inc.

1. Introduction

Some scholars suggest that state legislative races are beginning to resemble Congressional campaigns (Salmore & Salmore, 1993). That is, state legislative races are becoming more expensive, more dependent on mass media, frequent polling, and paid consultants, and less focused on traditional retail politics particularly in larger, more urban states. We provide evidence of this development from the 1995 state legislative races in a medium sized state--Virginia.

Our purpose is to provide data from a single election cycle in a single state. This narrow focus enables us to say much about our case study, but obviously limits our ability to make any generalizations about trends in state legislative elections more broadly. However, studying a medium sized state provides evidence about Congressionalization from more rural states. Using qualitative and quantitative data we found some evidence that state legislative races in Virginia are becoming more "Congressional." However, we also find that in many ways, state legislative elections are still largely different than Congressional ones.

Congressional races are very expensive because of media advertising. Congressional campaigns depend on television and radio advertising for their success. The costs of advertising in different districts dictate exactly how much television advertising a candidate can use. However, in virtually all districts, television advertising is critical to conveying campaign themes and an image of the candidate to voters. Radio advertising is also common. Television and radio ads are critical because voters receive most of their political information from broadcast media (Graber, 1993) and campaign ads play an important role in shaping how voters respond to candidates (Brians & Wattenburg, 1996).

Parties play a significant role in providing money and media help to Congressional candidates. The amount of "hard money" given to Congressional candidates by party committees is quite small, but the in-kind contributions from party organizations is sizable and significant (Jacobson, 1992, pp. 71-77). Each party has campaign committees that recruit candidates, provide polling support, coordinate strategy, fund voter registration drives and raise money. Parties also provide help to candidates in their media campaigns by developing campaigns themes and employing consultants who aid candidates.

If state legislative races are becoming more "Congressional" then we would expect to see growing use of cable television by the candidates and substantial support--in the form of money and media assistance--from the parties and legislative caucuses to state legislative candidates.

State legislative races are becoming more expensive, more professionally tailored, and increasingly favor incumbents (Salmore & Salmore, 1993). The costs of state legislative campaigns are skyrocketing (Gierzynski & Breaux, 1991; Stonecash, 1990). In some states, such as California, state legislative campaigns are now almost as expensive as many campaigns for the U.S. House. Even in states such as New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Minnesota the average is between $15,000 and $50,000 (Patterson, 1996). These rising costs are linked to television advertising and other aspects of modern campaigns.

The role of party organizations has also changed in state races. Where parties once dominated state electoral politics, a newer individual-based style of campaigning is emerging. However, state party organizations do provide a lot of in-kind support to state candidates--just as they do for Congressional candidates. They offer technical support, voter registration drives, polling, and media consulting to state level candidates (Bibby & Holbrook, 1996).

State legislative races will always differ from Congressional campaigns because the size of the districts differ. However, cable television is very cost-effective in state legislative races. Unlike broadcast television, cable allows candidates to reach a more clearly defined audience at much more reasonable prices. Also, the wide variety of specialized programming on cable television, such as all-sports channels, allows candidates to target specific parts of their constituency.

2. The 1995 campaign in Virginia

In the 1995 Virginia campaign the stakes were high. The Republicans needed to win two seats in the upper (Senate) and the lower (House of Delegates) chambers to take control of the state legislature, and Governor George Allen campaigned hard for GOP candidates throughout the state. The 1995 campaign was also expensive. From 1991 to 1995, the cost of state senate races increased 58% and for House (1996) races 122%. The average cost of a state senate race in 1995 was $157,792 and for the House $89,912 (Sabato, 1996, p. 6).

In an effort to replicate the success of the national Republicans in 1994, the Virginia Republican Party devised a statewide strategy similar to the Contract with America. That effort culminated in an event in which all but two of the GOP candidates for the state legislature met on the state Capitol steps with Governor Allen to sign their 10 point "Pledge for Honest Change."

The GOP used the Pledge extensively. Throughout the state, political ads by the GOP were remarkably similar. Individual races moved away from the traditional focus on local issues and personalities and instead emphasized the GOP's call for "change" and the GOP governor's popularity. The spokesperson of the state Democratic party said that the Republican legislative campaigns in 1995 differed from any other election year in that they were largely orchestrated by the state party and to an unusual extent "run out of the basement of the governor's mansion" (Nardi, 1996).

The Democratic party fought back with similar tactics and devised a uniform message for its legislative candidates. State party polling showed that the Republicans was vulnerable on education, the governor's strong support gun owners' rights, and the agenda of the Christian Right and Democratic candidates throughout the state ran races based on remarkably similar themes.

In Virginia, most political leaders agree that the old, traditional style of legislative elections is dying. Todd House, a Republican political consultant, represented several GOP General Assembly candidates in 1995. He noted that there were highly "coordinated expenditures and campaign activities in the state legislative races [in 1995] because it is more cost-effective and efficient." He ran his first campaign (for the House of Delegates) in 1991 and in the brief 4-year-period he had noticed a marked shift toward more mass-media oriented state legislative races. Candidates increasingly relied upon consultants who test-marketed themes and issues and then advised the candidates on how to frame their appeals. As recently as the 1980s, he said that it was more common for candidates to emphasize the personal touch and engage in retail politics rather than mass media campaigns. Having also directed Congressional campaigns, he concluded that the state-level campaigns that he has worked on in recent years have take n on many of the characteristics of federal races (Personal interview, October 29, 1996).

Callahan (1996) (R-McLean) has served in the House of Delegates since 1967. In his first (losing) campaign in 1963, he spent $2,500 running as the GOP nominee. In 1995 he spent over $200,000 and his opponent spent $175,000 in a district of 61,000 people (about 30,000 registered voters). He said that in 1995 his campaign was more high-tech than ever before. He did cable television ads and mass mailings, but no radio and no network TV given the prohibitive costs in the northern Virginia-Washington, DC market. He acknowledged that there was a concerted effort to unify the GOP message (Personal interview, October 29, 1996).

Bryant (1996) (R-Lynchburg) won in his first quest for the office in 1995 with a high-tech oriented campaign. Although he ran in a mostly rural district, Bryant relied heavily on television ads to reach voters. For example, in his district internal polls revealed that education was the strongest issue and that women in particular were motivated by that issue. The campaign identified cable stations such as the Lifetime channel and network programs such as "Sally Jesse Rafael" that had a predominantly female audience and then ran its education ads on those stations and programs. Polls revealed that male voters were more concerned with crime. Bryant ran hard-hitting anticrime ads ran on the male dominated Turner Network Television and during sporting events. His campaign spent over $25,000 in a rural district on television ads alone in the final 4 weeks of the election. Bryant explained that the state party played an active role in identifying campaign themes for candidates to emphasize throughout the state, par ticularly the tough-on-crime stance that dovetailed with Governor Allen's initiative to end parole (Personal interview, December 20, 1996).

These anecdotal observations by players in the elections are somewhat supported by data drawn from our survey of legislative candidates. In what follows, we provide a summary and analysis of our survey of the candidates to determine whether indeed they perceive important changes in the state legislative campaigns.

3. Survey data and analysis

We surveyed all 249 candidates for both the House and Senate during the 1995 campaign and received responses from 103 candidates--a response rate of 41.3%. We asked them various questions about the important issues in their campaigns, whether they received outside help, such as visits from prominent Virginia politicians, and used television advertising. (1)

Who Are the Candidates? Of our respondents, almost 79.6% are male, and more than 92.2% were white. Our respondents also tended to be middle age. The average candidate was born in 1946, but there was a fairly wide range to the age distribution. Five candidates were born before the stock market crash of 1929, and four more were 30 or younger. Both sides fielded a strong group of candidates. 43.7% had held office prior to the 1995 election, although Democratic candidates were slightly more likely to have held a political office than Republicans.

3.1. Expense

Among our respondents, the average campaign expenditure was $63,950, but the median was only $39,000. While roughly a third of those surveyed spent $20,000 or less, 20% spent between $100,000 and $300,000. Incumbents had more money to spend--mean of $77,200 and median of $63,500--than challengers--mean of $53,900 and median of $29,500.

3.2. Coordination at the top?

The "Pledge" was only part of the GOP strategy. Governor Allen campaigned throughout the state for Republican candidates. We asked the candidates whether their parties had offered any assistance to them such as polling, campaign consultants, or money. The results are listed in Table 1. Republicans did receive more assistance than their Democratic counterparts from their party organizations, but most of those differences were not statistically significant. In fact, Democrats were more likely to receive assistance when it came to strategy coordination.

What is interesting is that while the parties do provide important assistance to candidates--such as polling for Republicans and strategic help to both--less than 50% of the candidates from either party received money, polling, or media consulting from the party organizations. This is a sharp contrast to Congressional campaigns. National parties provide help to candidates such as media consulting and fund raising which is necessary in the candidate centered, media intensive environment of Congressional races. State legislative races in Virginia are considerably more traditional and less modern in this regard.

Party organizations aren't the only players who aid candidates. Table 2 shows whether the candidates were offered help from "other significant political figures, such as members of your party." More than 90% of both Republican and Democratic candidates were offered help from other significant political figures in the state. Most Republicans listed Governor Allen, followed by Senator John Warner. Several listed former Reagan administration 0MB Director James C. Miller II, a two-time candidate in Virginia for GOP Senate nomination. Slightly more Democratic respondents received assistance. Democratic received aid from Lt. Governor Donald Beyer and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Warner.

How did the governor and other significant political figures aid legislative candidates? Table 2 also lists the different activities which prominent political officials performed for candidates of both parties during the 1995 campaign. Funding raising and campaign appearances topped the list. It appears that Governor Allen did not coordinate Republican strategies as was suggested by our interviews of Democratic leaders. Republican leaders provided a large, and significant, advantage over Democrats in fund raising. The role of significant political figures in the 1995 race seems to have been limited to more traditional activities such as fund-raising and campaigning for legislative candidates. In this way the Republican leaders provided more leadership than did Democrats and did pursue more "Congressional" strategies.

We also asked our respondents about the role of their legislative caucuses in the campaigns (Table 3). The caucuses provided polling, strategy, and media help to candidates. The Republican caucus was more active in helping GOP candidates poll and build strategies, while Democrats were more likely to receive financial help from their caucus. This presumably helped to offset the GOP advantage in fund raising by significant political leaders. The legislative caucuses are the closest approximation to the DCCC and NRCC on the state level in Virginia. However, it would be incorrect to stretch that comparison. Less than 10% of either Democrats or Republicans received media consulting from their caucuses and significantly less than half of all candidates received specific types of assistance.

Party organizations, political leaders, and legislative caucuses did play a role in the 1995 campaign. They tried to coordinate campaign themes and allocate resources to win. Leaders from both parties helped candidates raise money. The legislative caucuses provided practical assistance such as polling to help candidates emphasize the right themes. However, neither organization was as prevalent as their national counterparts are. Also they played a very small role in helping to plan media campaigns.

3.3. The issues

Which issues mattered the most in the 1995 race? Republicans tried to emphasize issues that have worked both in Virginia and nationally. Their Pledge contained references to shrinking government, lowering taxes, providing educational choice for parents, and improving transportation and promoting economic development. Democrats, based on evidence from internal polls, focused on restoring funds that Governor Allen had tried to cut from the state's education budget.

We asked our respondents to rate the importance of a number of issues to their campaign (Table 4). Education was the most important issue for Democrats and tied as the most important for Republican candidates in 1995. This suggests that Democrats were able to shift attention away from the Republican's "Pledge" toward schools. Even traditional GOP issues, such as taxes, were perceived to be less important, by Republican candidates. Democrats forced Republicans to acknowledge the importance of education.

3.4. The use of paid advertising

Traditionally state legislative races were grassroots affairs where door-to-door politics matters. Radio advertising was the best electronic advertising medium. Broadcast television was too expensive and reached a broader audience than any state legislative candidate needed. Cable television allows legislators to target smaller areas. Cable is less expensive than broadcast television and an attractive alternative to radio and newspaper advertising. We asked those surveyed how they had allocated their campaign and media budgets. We then asked our respondents whether or not they had used radio, television--both cable and broadcast--or print ads during their campaigns (Tables 5 and 6). The typical Virginia legislative campaigns spent a relatively small part of their budgets--about 23%--on radio and television advertising. Candidates still spend most of their money on flyers and signs.

Still the use of electronic media is significant. Table 6 indicates that while newspaper advertising is the single most popular form of advertising, television, both cable and broadcast, now rivals the use of radio advertising. Both parties are equally likely to use cable. While cable television is the third most prevalent more of campaign advertising, it still comprises a substantial part of many legislative campaigns. Table 7 shows the percentages of candidates who relied upon different media.

4. Discussion

While both parties played an important role in the 1995 race, they still provided a different type of assistance than the DCCC and NRCC do for federal candidates. Media help is noticeably lacking. The use of uniform, statewide themes backed by increased costs of the legislative campaigns made the 1995 races different than traditional Virginia campaigns. However, television advertising is still not the norm. Cable television is increasingly prevalent, but it is still the third most important form of advertising and is generally only used by well funded candidates.

We also found that electronic advertising is fairly prevalent in state legislative races in Virginia. Until now, most of the evidence that legislative candidates were using more television was largely anecdotal and focused primarily on larger states, such as California.

The data presented here offer some qualified support for the view that state legislative races are becoming more "Congressional." Certain features of these campaigns make them continue to appear more "local" than "modern" or "Congressional" in character. But the 1995 elections in Virginia point toward a possible trend that will have important consequences for the nature of local-based campaigns in the future.
Table 1

Party organization assistance to candidates

                          All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Any assistance            68.9            70.3       79.6
Polling **                31.1            18.9       48.1
Money                     21.4            18.9       28.8
Media consultant          10.7            10.8       13.5
Issues/strategy           34.0            43.2       36.5
Other                     23.3            24.3       25.0
How helpful was the        4.05            3.96       4.11
 assistance? (1-7 scale)

Note: The symbol

* indicates chi-square significant at .05 level

** indicates chi-square significant at .01 level.
Table 2

Significant political figures help to candidates

                     All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Any help             85.4            92.3       90.7
Campaign appearance  57.3            61.5       64.8
Fund raising *       54.4            46.2       70.4
Media consulting      2.9             0          5.6
Campaign strategy    16.5            23.1       13.0
Other                 4.9             5.1        5.6

Note: The symbol

* indicates chi-square signiicant at .05 level

** indicates chi-square signiicant at .01 level.
Table 3

Legislative party caucus assistance for candidates

                   All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Any assistance     65.0            71.8       72.2
Polling            26.2            20.5       35.2
Money *            32.0            46.2       27.8
Media consulting    7.8             7.7        9.3
Campaign strategy  36.9            35.9       44.4
Other              11.7            15.4       11.1

Note: The symbol

* indicates chi-square significant at. 10 level

** indicates chi-square significant at .05 level

*** indicates chi-square significant at .01 level.
Table 4

Campaign issues (7-point scale--mean responses)

                       All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Education              6.0             6.5        5.8
Cutting taxes          3.3             2.2        4.4
Economic development   4.4             4.4        4.6
Abortion               3.1             3.2        3.1
Government regulation  3.7             2.9        4.3
Transportation         3.9             3.3        4.2
Crime                  5.2             5.0        5.8
Table 5

Percentage of campaign budget spent on

                       All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Polling                 4.0             5.5        3.8
Staff                  13.0            14.0       14.8
Research/travel/other  10.8            12.5        9.7
Get out the vote        8.9            11.7        8.8
Media                  56.9            48.0       56.3

                       Incumbents  Challengers

Polling                 3.6         4.0
Staff                  12.7        13.8
Research/travel/other   9.7        11.0
Get out the vote        8.5         8.9
Media                  56.1        57.7
Table 6

Percentage of media budget spent on

                       All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Newspapers              7.4             6.5        9.2
Radio                  12.5            13.5       14.2
Television              9.0            10.4        9.6
Campaign fliers/signs  65.2            61.7       61.5

                       Incumbents  Challengers (n = 57)

Newspapers              8.3         6.3
Radio                  14.1        11.5
Television              9.1         9.3
Campaign fliers/signs  59.1        69.1
Table 7

Media use by candidates (% who indicated use of following mediums)

                  All candidates  Democrats  Republicans

Radio ads         47.6            56.4       51.9
Radio talk shows  46.6            41.0       50.0
Cable TV ads      27.1            30.7       27.8
Broadcast TV ads  15.5            20.5       14.8
Newspaper ads     56.3            61.5       52.1


(1.) 50% of the Democratic respondents were incumbents; 46.2% of the Republicans were incumbents; 42.1% of Democrats and 40.4% of Republicans were challengers. The rest were running in open seats.


Bibby, J. F., & Holbrook, T. M. (1996). Parties and elections. In V. Gray & H. Jacob (Eds.), Politics in the American states. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

Brians, C. L. M., & Wattenburg, P. (1996). Campaign issue knowledge and salience: Comparing reception from TV commercials, TV news, and newspapers. American Journal of Political Science, 40, 172-193.

Bryant, D. L. P. (1996). Author interview, December 20.

Callahan, D. V. (1996). Author interview, October 29.

Gierzynski, A., & Breaux, D. (1991). Money and votes in state legislative elections. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, August 29-September 1.

House, T. (1996). Author interview, October 29.

Nardi, G. (1996). Author interview, March 19.

Patterson, S. C. (1996). Legislative politics in the states. In V. Gray & H. Jacob, Politics in the American states. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

Salmore, S., & Salmore, B. (1993). The transformation of state electoral politics. In C. Van Horn (Ed.), The state of the states. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

Stonecash, J. M. (1990). Campaign finance in New York senate elections. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 15, 247-262.

G. Patrick Lynch (a),*,(1), Mark J. Rozell (b)

(a.) Department of Government, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057, USA

(b.) The Catholic University of America, 620 Michigan Avenue, Washington, DC 20064, USA

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-202-687-6130; fax: +1-202-687-5858.

E-mail address: (G.P. Lynch).

(1.) Present address: Liberty Fund Suite 300, Allison Pointe Trail, Indianapolis, IN 46250, USA. Te.: +1-317-842-0880.

G. Patrick Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous studies on state and local politics and the media, among other topics.

Mark J. Rozell is an Associate Professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of numerous studies on the media and politics, the politics of Virginia, among other topics.
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Author:Lynch, G. Patrick; Rozell, Mark J.
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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