REP. KRATOVIL: Your 24-cents worth– an Incumbent’s advantage

   Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-1st) has spent nearly $83,000 in taxpayer money to send out newsletter mailings to constituents this year, at  per household costs of 24-cents, according to a Cecil Times search of voluminous Clerk of the House documents.  It is a perfectly legal, and even routine, expenditure by sitting House members but it is one of the ‘perks’ of office that political challengers to incumbents do not have.

    Federal documents show that Kratovil distributed 208,322 mailers in the third quarter of the year, for a total cost of $31,256 or 9-cents per household. For the first quarter of the year, he sent out 116,151 mailers, at a total cost of $51,666, or about 15-cents per household. Final figures for the year won’t be available until early 2010. (These figures do not include the value of franked mail, which is accounted for separately in House records. The franking privilege allows members of Congress to send postage-free letters to constituents.)

   Kratovil’s mailings let him get his name before individual constituents (otherwise known as voters) to advise them of what he is doing in Washington, address issues of concern to his district, etc.  The content of such mailings is strictly limited under House rules, which prohibit blatant electioneering in such taxpayer-supported mailings.

    In the grand scheme of federal campaign finance, a quarter is less than peanuts. But such taxpayer-paid mailings do give an incumbent an edge over challengers to keep his or her name before the voters. Unfortunately, many citizens are clueless about who represents them in Congress and do not follow the news in newspapers, online or on TV newscasts. But they do at least glance at their mail and might just register on the Congressman’s name before tossing a flyer in the trash.

   Especially for a vulnerable freshman like Kratovil, that nearly $83,000 in public-financed mailings gives him a chance to remind voters he is on the job without having to dip into campaign funds to get out that message.

   State Sen. Andy Harris (R-Baltimore County), who very narrowly lost to Kratovil in the 2008 general election, has announced he plans to challenge Kratovil again in 2010.  So far, Kratovil has outpaced Harris in fundraising for the next contest by about a 2-1 margin, according to federal campaign finance reports.

  Many long-term incumbents do not bother to send out such mailings in non-election years. But for newcomers such mailings are important. Kratovil is not alone among the newest members of the Maryland Congressional delegation in taking advantage of the taxpayer-funded mailings.

   Rep. John Sarbanes (D-3rd) sent out a one-time mailing of 468,363 pieces, at a total costs of $55,734, or an average per household costs of 18-cents, according to federal records. But that was still quite a bit less than Kratovil’s spending. Sarbanes doesn’t have a big name recognition problem, since he is the son of the long-term U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes. Sarbanes retired from his seat, which was won in the 2006 election by Ben Cardin. Cardin’s House seat was won by the younger Sarbanes.

   Mailing privileges are not the only taxpayer-provided perk that can help incumbents. So if Rep. Kratovil drives over to Ocean City to inspect storm damage to the beaches, the mileage is reimbursed as a legitimate expense of constituent service. If  Harris does the same, the cost is on his dime, or that of his campaign committee.

    But Harris has a few perks of his own. If  that storm also damaged areas in the portion of his state Senate District that coincides with the 1st Congressional district, that inspection trip would be a legitimate  cost of his state representational duties.

     Of course, if that pesky storm hit Kent County, too, Republican State Sen. E.J. Pipkin could have a similar advantage. There has been considerable buzz in Washington about the rising prospects of Pipkin entering the GOP primary in 2010 for a re-match of the Republican primary he lost to Harris in 2008. However, on the home-front Campaign Pipkin has been mum on his intentions, even as he appears around Cecil County waving vague campaign signs. (See article below on this blog)

     The key question on the Republican side is whether the deep-pocketed Club for Growth will bankroll Harris again as it did in the last election as part of the conservative group’s agenda to knock off moderate Republicans, like Wayne Gilchrest, who lost the GOP primary to Harris.  The Club did contribute to Harris’ general election campaign, but the group generally prefers to play an active role in primaries.

    That said, the entry of the somewhat more moderate Pipkin into the Republican primary against Harris might be the best way to assure that the Club for Growth would pull out the checkbook again for Harris in 2010.

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