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HE'S EITHER a dreamer or a fool.
Statistics show he had almost no chance of succeeding. The effort would take more than six months and cost about $90,000. It would leave him emotionally and physically drained. Yet he did it anyway.

Swim the English Channel? Climb Mount Everest?

No, Kevin Gaughan did something even less likely to end well. He ran for Congress against an incumbent.

The incumbent, in this case, was Bill Paxon. The race was in the 31st District, which stretches (against all logic) from Lake Erie to Livingston County.
Gaughan, a 36-year-old Democrat, had never run for office before.

Predictably, he lost.

So did more than 95 percent of Gaughan's fellow challengers for Congress.

We pride ourselves on living in a democracy. Yet there is less turnover at the top of our government than in the Soviet Politburo.

That would be understandable, if people were enamored of their representatives. But they aren't. Many of the same faces keep winning simply because they have built-in advantages.

Paxon beat Gaughan by 14 percentage points. He also spent about five times as much money.

If an athlete got that sort of handicap in a mile run, spectators would leave the stadium in disgust.

The problem isn't with those running the race. It's with the rules they run by. Paxon didn't do anything hundreds of other incumbents didn't do. The bad guy is a system that favors incumbents.

As Gaughan put it, "(An incumbent) is able to pick up the phone, call a TV station and say, 'I'm sending over a check for $80,000 so I can bury an opponent in the last week of the campaign.' "

Gaughan, in the campaign's final weeks, spent about $10,000 on TV ads. His opponent spent about $200,000, the bulk of it on TV (about $60,000) and direct mailings to voters.

In races across the country, the story was similar. The system has mutated into an incumbent-friendly thing that discourages prospective challengers, disillusions voters and erodes people's belief that government works for them.

Incumbent vs. challenger? The difference between about a dozen phone lines in campaign headquarters and the three that Gaughan had. Between starting from scratch (if party support is minimal, as it was with Gaughan) or already having hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank.

"And that," said Gaughan, "is all money they've never had to work for."

Even given a level playing surface, Gaughan might not have won in a Republican-heavy district. Maybe most incumbents would be re-elected anyway. But it would be nice to find out.

An election is supposed to be a discussion of ideas. Yet, in the 31st District -- and countless others nationally -- the challenger couldn't coax the incumbent into a debate.

Of course, there's no law saying the top dog has to face the underdog. So most of them don't. The real loser isn't the challenger, it's you.

You lose, too, whenever a congressman sends excessive "free" mailings to constituents. It's free to the congressman, but the taxpayer pays -- sometimes as much as several hundred thousand dollars per congressman per term.

The mailing privilege, called franking, is defended by incumbents as a necessary means of communication. Beyond a reasonable volume, however, it merely serves to pound the politician's name into the voters' heads. This "name recognition" pays off on Election Day. Both Paxon and another area congressman, Democrat John LaFalce, were fingered by the National Taxpayers Union for excessive franking.

The deck is stacked in other ways. Political action committees funnel money from corporations and special-interest groups to candidates. Incumbents get the great majority of it.

In the 31st District race, as of mid-October, Gaughan got $31,500 from PACs. Paxon got $208,698.

Gaughan spent a total of $90,000. Paxon raised about $700,000, total, and spent about $500,000. Paxon's finance director, Jim Hayes, said less than one-third of what Paxon raised came from PACs. In other words, Paxon wasn't heavily PAC'ed compared with some other incumbents.

The 31st, however, differed from the norm in at least one way. On the average, upwards of a million dollars was spent on each congressional race, more than $500 million in all. In the 31st, candidates spent a mere $600,000. Downright thrifty.

If there were limits on what candidates could spend, that money could have gone to a slew of good causes. Instead, it's yesterday's TV ad and campaign sign.

Beyond all of that, there's something else.

Unless the system changes, fewer good people will put time, effort and money into what it is, with rare exception, a futile challenge.

Gaughan, for instance. He's well-spoken, idealistic (his hero is Ralph Waldo Emerson) and enthusiastic. Not a professional politician with a powerful machine behind him, but a concerned citizen with ideas. Politically naive, sure. But the sort of person the system could use more of. Instead, he's the sort we may see less of.

Look no further than Western New York. The two other House incumbents didn't face an active opponent.

Solutions? There are some obvious ones.

Limit the amount a candidate can spend. Require televised debates. Set aside TV time for candidates. Eliminate or limit the PAC system. (Limits on franking go into effect Jan. 1.)

Even Paxon, the 31st's winner, says changes are needed. He says 75 percent of money raised should come from within the district, which would limit PACs to one-quarter of the total raised.

He doesn't, however, support limits on spending. He says they would prevent a highly financed challenger from outspending an incumbent. He rejects requiring free TV time or debates.

"I think candidates should debate," he said. "But not because the government forces them to. This isn't Eastern Europe."

Most of us believe in a level playing field.

In Congress, the field is tilted so high against challengers that they might as well be climbing Everest. Which, come to think of it, is probably more practical.

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