They could urinate on the American flag, moon town-hall meetings, call the U.S. a third-rate country populated by bozos.
And these nearly two-dozen members of Congress would still be reelected to another term.
Why? Because in the grand tradition of democracies from North Korea to Cuba, they run for reelection completely unopposed, facing no obstacle in their general or primary campaign greater than remaining upright and breathing.
Now a new online fundraising platform is trying to change that. Crowdpac, a political startup that matches voters with candidates who share their issues, is soliciting donations and pooling the money raised for any contender who wants to make sure that no member of Congress glides into their seat in 2016.
“In a democracy, it just doesn’t seem right,” said Crowdpac founder Steve Hilton, a former top aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron. “How can someone be elected to the U.S. Congress without facing an opponent? It sounds like a basic function of democracy, that every citizen deserves a choice and that every candidate should be held accountable.”
Hilton, who has relocated from London to Silicon Valley, said the idea for the online fundraising platform came to him when Crowdpac was compiling data on members of Congress who sat on key committees and who opposed immigration reform. Crowdpac, a Match.com for people who want to be politically engaged but need a way to see past the partisan blather, attempted to highlight candidates for pro-immigration voters to support with their money. But Hilton was alarmed to find out that in some cases there was no one for his algorithm to get behind.
“I found it to be an amazing discovery. I had no idea it was even possible for someone to run unopposed,” he said. “It’s nothing personal, but they don’t have to answer for their actions or for their performance. That is not true accountability.”
And so Crowdpac is trying to raise $100,000 for each district for any viable candidate who can run against someone who ran unopposed in 2014.
That year, according to their data, there were 20 members of the House—10 Democrats and 10 Republicans—who did not face an opponent, and one U.S. senator, Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
Although many of the candidates who ran unopposed races in 2014 were safely ensconced in the truest blue or deepest red districts—including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, which has a Partisan Voting Index of D31, according to the Cook Congress Report; or his fellow Georgian Rep. Austin Scott, who represents a R15 district—others hail from the kind of districts that should see vigorous competition. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), for example, represents a district that Democratic presidential candidates often win, and he is one of the most moderate members of the House GOP. Rep. Stephen Lynch is pro-life and one of the most conservative Democrats in Massachusetts, yet like the rest of the incumbents on Crowdpac’s list, was able to avoid even a primary challenge, let alone a general election fight.
Stephen Spaulding, a policy counsel at the good government group Common Cause, said the primary reason incumbents got a free pass was districts so gerrymandered they would make a mapmaker blush. In addition, he said, the money in politics has become so overwhelming that the barrier for entry is too high for most would-be challengers to bother.
“You’ve got candidates who are just staring out at the mountain and looking at the boulder they have to roll up there, the huge increase in money it takes to run an effective campaign. The connections one has to build are just astronomical at this point,” he said. “The No. 1 reason people don’t run is that they don’t know if they can get the financial support, and if that is taken off the table, that is a good thing.”
Users of Crowdpac can give their money to the overall pool of funds or direct their cash so that it does not go to a candidate from a party they oppose. In many races, the $100,000 Crowdpac hopes to raise for each district represents a decent sum for someone willing to take a chance.
“These are all safe districts, and so someone might say, ‘What is the point? I am not going to win,’” said Hilton. “But if we can say that there is a pot of money that is available to any challenger, it might push someone to come forward and mount a credible campaign.”
Data is not available on whether more incumbents run unopposed now than they did in the past. But more Americans moving and sorting themselves into like-minded communities has had the effect not just of creating one-sided districts but of weakening the opposing party to such an extent that it is unable to help even a nominal opponent get on the ballot and run a credible race.
“We are not having a competition of ideas, which in many ways is what a democracy is premised upon,” said Spaulding. “It creates stagnation, and it creates a certain laziness. But even worse, it creates the appearance of laziness, where you have politicians that feel like they can hold these jobs for the rest of their lives.”