Spoiler: Most Congressional Contests Not Contests At All

Upsets can happen. Challenger Dr. Roger Marshall (left) defeated incumbent Rep. Tim Huelskamp (right) in the Kansas Republican primary this cycle. (Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News via AP)

By: Sarah Bryner

Despite a seemingly never-ending stream of news reports about the November election, the election of many federal lawmakers has already been decided.

OpenSecrets has shown that the better-funded campaign nearly always wins, a finding that dovetails with the fact that incumbents, also, usually win. And incumbents tend to have an easier time raising money than the candidates who challenge them. Even though there are some elections that will almost certainly be nailbiters, and even though occasionally a challenger surprises an incumbent with an upset, we can be fairly confident about the outcomes of many races.

In 135 races, only a single candidate is running (defined here as having submitted a financial report to the Federal Election Commission). In some cases, the real contest took place in the primary, but in others there's no challenger who has raised or spent more than $5,000. Seven states have not yet held their primary contests, so the number of uncontested general election races could increase closer to Nov. 8.

Of these 135 races, three are Senate seats, and all three of those will result in the re-election of Republicans. Of the remaining 132 races, 127 will be won by incumbents. Five of the races with only one candidate will usher new faces into Congress, all having been decided in a primary earlier this year. The victors in these no-contest House seats have so far raised, on average, $1 million, despite the lack of competition - though in some cases those candidates probably drove off any rivals because of the war chests they built.

In the majority of the rest of the races - 284, to be exact - the incumbent is outraising all of his or her challengers. Twenty-five of these are Senate races and 259 are House races. When combined with the previous category, this means that 28 out of 34 Senate races, or 82 percent, are either uncontested or feature incumbents who is outraising their challengers. This is the case for 90 percent of House races. In some states, like Colorado, there are no open-seat races, nor ones in which challengers are outraising incumbents.

Sometimes a well-funded candidate can make a race competitive despite being outraised. That's more difficult when the incumbent has a huge financial advantage. In 259 of the 284 races where the challenger is being outraised, the incumbent has raised more than twice as much. In 243 races, the incumbent has a threefold lead in fundraising.

In just four cases - or 1 percent of all races - the challenger is outraising the incumbent. That includes three House races, in Florida, California and New Jersey, and the Wisconsin Senate race between Russ Feingold and sitting Sen. Ron Johnson. All four of the incumbents are Republicans. But Feingold, while running as a challenger, is not the typical challenger; he was in the Senate from 1993-2011, leaving unwillingly after being ousted by Johnson.

There are, of course, open seat races. Here, the money battle is more equitable (other than the five we mentioned earlier where only one candidate is currently running). Forty-five races are open seats where multiple candidates have raised money. Five of them are Senate races, and of these, only two are contests where the money race is close. In Maryland Chris Van Hollen (D) is outraising Kathy Szeliga (R) by a commanding margin, and in California Kamala Harris (D) is outraising her Democratic opponent Loretta Sanchez by $12 million to $3.7 million. In Indiana, Todd Young (R) has raised over $5 million to Evan Bayh's (D) $18,000, but Bayh has a bulging war chest of almost $9.5 million from 2010. The other two races, in Louisiana and Nevada, have more balanced fundraising totals across the remaining candidates.

In the House, there are 45 open seat races, including the five "no contest" races mentioned earlier. If the election was held today, and the candidate with the most money won, Democrats would go from holding 17 of these 45 seats to holding 23, while the Republicans would go from holding 28 of the seats to holding 22.

Occasionally, a challenger upsets a well-funded incumbent. This cycle, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) was defeated by challenger Roger Marshall when the GOP establishment marshaled its forces against the incumbent, who was perceived by them as a misbehaving rabble-rouser. And don't forget 2014, when then-college professor Dave Brat (R-Va.) succeeded in unseating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) in the primary, sending much of Washington into shock.