Who started the Campaign for Primary Accountability?

The Campaign for Primary Accountability was started by a group of people who believe that fundamental change is needed to restore accountability, self-governance and local control to citizens. Launched by founders Leo Linbeck III and Eric O’Keefe, CPA’s goal is to help break the cycle of incumbency.

Why was CPA started?

CPA wants to break the cycle of incumbency and make Members of Congress more accountable to citizens. The fundamental check on political power in a republic is the ballot box. But when elected officials rarely have to compete to maintain the support of the electorate, they become unaccountable to the people and can accumulate and wield power without practical constraint.

In 2010, the approval rating of Congress was only 17%, but 86% of incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives were re-elected anyway. This disconnect between approval and re-election rates is the clearest sign that the congressional accountability system is broken. Ending the cycle of incumbency that frees politicians from real accountability is a necessary part of any effort to restore self-governance.

That understanding led to the establishment of the Campaign for Primary Accountability in the autumn of 2011.

What is CPA’s mission?

CPA’s mission is to foster greater participation in primary elections as a way to “Break the Cycle of Incumbency” in Congress. Our goal is to bring true competition to our electoral process, to give voters real information about their choices, and to restore fair, not fixed, elections. The Campaign for Primary Accountability encourages challengers so more voters will have a real choice in multi-candidate primary elections.

More than 80% of congressional districts are controlled by one of the two political parties. Most general elections aren’t even close. The incumbent wins in a landslide, with an average margin of victory of 26%. Most long-term incumbents–the ones who control Congress–come from one-party districts. The general elections in which they cruise to victory election after election are really fake fights, like the ones in pro wrestling. The primary is where the real decision about who goes to Washington is made.

We want a Congress that answers to the people on Main Street rather than the lobbyists on K Street. In order to change Congress, more people need to get involved in primaries.

What races does CPA get involved in?

We have four criteria for engaging in a primary race for the House of Representatives.

  1. Safe district. The House district must be overwhelmingly dominated by one party, so that the winner of the dominant party primary will almost certainly be guaranteed to win the general election. We are not trying to shift power between an irresponsible Republican Party and an irresponsible Democratic Party. Rather, we are trying to shift power to the citizens through a representative who will be accountable to them.
  2. Long-term incumbent. They are the ones who have the most power and the least accountability under the current system. They often cruise to re-election term after term without facing any real opponent on the ballot.
  3. Credible challenger. You can’t beat something with nothing. There must be another candidate capable of doing the job if elected, and doing the work that’s required to mount a serious campaign.
  4. Voter dissatisfaction. CPA is not trying to impose its judgment on a district’s voters; we want the voters to decide. If polling shows that informed voters support their current representative, we don’t engage.

All four criteria are required for us to engage.

Is CPA trying to advance a political philosophy?

Our initiative doesn’t fit the standard paradigm, because we think the citizen is sovereign and that the candidates should work for the citizens of their district. This means that in a progressive district, the representative will probably be progressive, since that’s the makeup of the district. In a conservative district, the representative will probably be conservative. That’s fine, so long as the representative remains accountable to the district. We believe elections should really act as a “transmission belt” for the political preferences of the voters in that district. Where the transmission belt is broken – where the actions of the representative are not in sync with the wishes of their constituents – we engage. Where it is not broken, there’s nothing for us to do – democracy is working in that instance.

We’re all-in with the people. We believe that the American people, when given a real choice between two alternatives, will choose the best path. But the system has evolved to the point where most voters don’t have a real choice, or they’re not participating in the election where the decision is really made: primaries.

If I am challenging an incumbent member of Congress, do I have to be a conservative (or a liberal) for CPA to support my campaign for Congress?

No. CPA has assisted challengers from across the political spectrum.

How many races was CPA involved in 2012?

Our first success was Indiana-5, with incumbent Dan Burton. We released our poll and began talking to major political contributors in his district, and within days Burton retired. We helped defeat Jean Schmidt in Ohio-2, Don Manzullo in Illinois-16, Tim Holden in PA-17 and Silvestre Reyes in TX-16.

We were also involved in a significant way in five other races: two in Alabama, and one in Illinois, Ohio and Texas each.

Our hope is that by improving the odds of challengers, more candidates will step forward and take on entrenched incumbents.

Does CPA recruit candidates?

No. But you can be our eyes and ears and tell us about candidates and would-be candidates you know about.

Does CPA coordinate its activities with candidates?

Federal election laws prohibit CPA from coordinating its activities with candidates or candidates’ campaign committees.

Does CPA make contributions to candidates?

No. CPA makes independent expenditures – independent of the candidates and their campaigns – to encourage voters to participate in primaries and inform them of their choices.

Are you opposed to all incumbents?

No. If polling shows that voters support their representative, we don’t engage. We believe elections should act as a “transmission belt” for the preferences of the voters in that district. Where the transmission belt is broken – where the actions of the representative are not in sync with the wishes of their constituents – we engage. Where it is not broken, democracy is working in that instance.

Is CPA involved in Senate races?

No. CPA only engages in House races in districts that are overwhelmingly dominated by one party. In races like this, the winner of the primary is virtually guaranteed to win the general election.

There’s a lot of outside money funding the campaign in my congressional district. Aren’t Super PACs like CPA part of the problem?

No. We are not your typical Super PAC. The Campaign for Primary Accountability helps level the playing field for challengers with resources they would not otherwise have access to. Long-term incumbents rely on traditional Political Action Committees and Washington lobbyists to raise funds from outside the congressional district. Incumbents use this outside money to scare off would-be challengers. We believe every member of Congress should face the voters in multi-candidate elections to keep them accountable. CPA is promoting more competitive elections.

Why do we need The Equalizer Campaign?

Long-term incumbents have advantages—name recognition, relationships with media and party elders, and most importantly, the ability to raise funds from the traditional Political Action Committees and Washington lobbyists. A big differential in funding virtually determines the outcome of a primary.

Money also creates huge advantages for “safe seat” incumbents who face little or no general-election competition. House members in safe districts amass huge war chests and use that money to help their party win in swing districts, thereby garnering loyalty from the candidates they support.

These war chests deter competition in their own primaries as well: in 2010, 62 percent of incumbents had no primary challenger, and those who did won by an average margin of 66 percent. The vast majority went on to face no serious opposition in the general election.

The most powerful members are therefore the least accountable. Their monetary advantage is a big reason for that.

The Equalizer Campaign levels the playing field for challengers by breaking the “message monopoly” that incumbents enjoy because of their financial advantage and informing voters of the true record of the incumbent and of the choices they have in the election.

Don’t we need campaign finance reform/voter registration reform/redistricting reform to make elections more fair and competitive?

There are a number of reforms that can and should be debated.

Keep in mind that the last hundred years have seen a steady stream of campaign-reform legislation. Incumbents have consistently used these “reforms” to erect barriers to keep local party leaders—who are now supplicants, not bosses—the local business community, and everyone else from impeding their re-election. They have transferred control of elections to the government bureaucracy they fund and control, created complex ballot-access laws, and imposed contribution limits to make it hard for opponents to fund a credible challenge.

That these reforms protect incumbents by lessening competition is perfectly predicable: in what universe would you expect incumbents to pass laws that make it easier for them to lose?

The first step toward enacting meaningful reform is to replace the long-term incumbents who are captive to the current corrupted system.

How can I support CPA?

There are a number of ways you can support CPA. First, you can make a contribution to the Equalizer Campaign and help challengers across the country replace career politicians with citizen legislators.

You can tell us about promising candidates and races in your area we should know about.

And you can sign up to receive updates from CPA and keep abreast of developments in the growing people power movement to restore competitive elections so we have a Congress that answers to the people rather than the lobbyists.