Strategic Challenger Entry in a Federal System: The Role of Economic and Political Conditions in State Legislative Competition

AuthorSteven Rogers
Published date01 November 2015
Date01 November 2015
Saint Louis University
Strategic Challenger Entry in a
Federal System: The Role of
Economic and Political Conditions
in State Legislative Competition
Over a third of state legislators do not face challengers when seeking reelection.
Existing analyses of state legislative contestation almost exclusively focus on the stable
institutional features surrounding elections and ignore conditions that change between
elections. I remedy this oversight by investigating how political contexts influence chal-
lenger entry. State legislators—particularly members of the governor’s party—more
often face opposition during weak state economies, but the president’s copartisans are
even more likely to receive a challenger when the president is unpopular. My findings
suggest that both national- and state-level political conditions have an important impact
on challengers’ entry strategies.
The threat of being thrown out of off‌ice is intended to pressure law-
makers to govern responsibly, but voters can only replace their
representatives if there are alternatives to the incumbents on the ballot.
American voters are nearly always provided an alternative choice to
reelecting their president, governor, or member of Congress and there-
fore have the ability to remove these off‌icials from power. However in
2012, Republicans reclaimed control of the South Carolina state house
before a single vote was cast, as not enough Democratic candidates ran
to secure a Democratic majority. Similarly in Rhode Island, 53% of state
legislative seats only had a Democratic candidate, thereby deciding
which party controlled the state legislature without any elections taking
With so few Democrats deciding to run for the state legislature in
South Carolina and fewer Republicans in Rhode Island, it becomes diff‌i-
cult for voters to hold state legislators accountable for their
policymaking. State legislatures pass 75 times as many laws as Congress,
and to induce representative policymaking, median voter theories require
at least a meaningful threat of a challenger (Downs 1957). Without
DOI: 10.1111 /lsq.12088
C2015 The Comparative Legislative Research Center of The University of Iowa
competition, legislators have less electoral incentive to take their constit-
uents’ interests into account as they consider legalizing gay marriage or
enacting gun control reforms. Challengers play a critical role in the
accountability process not only by providing alternatives to ineffective
governments but also by bringing unrepresentative policymaking to the
attention of voters (Arnold 1992). Understanding electoral accountability
in American legislatures requires identifying the conditions under which
incumbent state legislators face competition.
Political scientists know relatively little about how state legislative
candidates take advantage of changing electoral circumstances. Prior
work on state legislative competition almost exclusively focuses on
cross-state differences and ignores the inf‌luence of changing conditions
within a state. I know of no analysis that considers whether the strength
of the economy relates to state legislative candidates’ entry decisions
despite f‌indings regarding strategic challengers in congressional elec-
tions (Jacobson 1989). Neither federal nor state-level challengers enjoy
losing, so it would seem plausible that state legislative candidates are
more likely to enter races when the anticipated reactions of the electorate
are conducive to winning. If candidates take advantage of favorable
political conditions, the actual opportunities voters have to hold their rep-
resentatives accountable will systematically differ as the contexts
surrounding elections change.
To assess the extent to which these opportunities differ, I study
how institutional and political contexts inf‌luence challenger entry in state
legislative elections. I show that major party challengers are most likely
to emerge during bad economies, and the relationship between economic
growth and challenger entry is strongest for incumbents aff‌iliated with
the governor, particularly in professionalized legislatures. During eco-
nomic downturns in less partisan districts, incumbents also more
frequently face politically experienced opposition. State legislators aff‌ili-
ated with the president’s party, meanwhile, are overall the most likely to
face competition, especially during unpopular presidencies. State legisla-
tive challengers, therefore, appear to take advantage of both state and
national political conditions for their personal electoral gain when decid-
ing to enter a race, ultimately inf‌luencing voters’ opportunities to hold
state governments accountable on Election Day.
Challengers’ Strategies in State Legislative Elections
Ideally, every incumbent would be challenged to give voters an
opportunity to hold their legislators accountable for poor representation
(Key 1966). The threat of a challenger can motivate legislators’ behavior
540 Steven Rogers
(Arnold 1992), but citizens can only remove their representative from
off‌ice if there is an alternative to the incumbent on the ballot. Voters
however have relatively few opportunities to vote against their incum-
bent state legislator. Figure 1 presents the levels of competition in US
House and state legislative races from 1992 to 2010. Rarely did more
than 60% of state legislators face major party opposition (black solid
line), a rate over 20% lower than that in US House elections (grey solid
line). From 2002 to 2010, fewer than 20% of state legislators faced an
in-party primary opponent (black dashed line), resulting in over a third
of incumbents not facing a challenger in either the primary or general
In fact, Emile Bruneau, Jr. was “reelected” to the Louisiana
state house without any competition for over 18 years. Voters in the 94th
Louisiana state house district, therefore, had little chance to cast a ballot
against their representative or Republican legislative party because no
one decided to challenge Bruneau.
Bruneau is an extreme example, and the rates of challenger entry
vary across the United States. Figure 2 illustrates the levels of contesta-
tion in states that exclusively have single-member state house districts.
Every election year, over 90% of Minnesota state representatives face
Challenge Rates to Incumbents in the US House
and State Legislatures
Note: Solid lines represent the proportion of US House (grey) and state legislative (black)
incumbents who faced a major party challenger in elections from 1992 to 2010. The difference
in rates in challenger entry in general elections is consistently greater than 20%. Dotted lines
illustrate the rates in which state legislators face competition in the primary election. Over a
third of incumbents did not face a challenger in either the primary or general election from
2002 to 2010.
541State Legislative Competition

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