GAINESVILLE – R.J. Larizza, state attorney for Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit, is running unopposed for a third term, an increasingly common phenomenon in state and local elections.
There are a number of reasons for the trend, which can vary from state to state, but demographics and the existence of a popular incumbent can both play a role, according to Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.
“It's fairly frequent that we see uncontested elections in state and local elections, particularly primary elections, but also in general elections,” McDonald told the Florida Record. “It depends on the state when it comes to state legislatures, but you could have anywhere between a quarter to a half of the offices for state legislature that are unopposed in the general election.”
Other races are harder to track, since there isn’t one single source for information and there are so many in the U.S., he said, but the same holds true there.
“It's not a rarity, it's more the norm to have uncontested elections,” he said.
In 2008, Larizza, a Republican, challenged the incumbent, John Tanner, in the Republican primary. In 2012, he faced a challenge from county judge Stasia Warren, also in the Republican primary.
“The causal reason for that is not necessarily incumbency, although that can be one factor, especially if there's a particularly beloved incumbent who has defeated challengers in the past,” McDonald said. “You'll see those incumbents start to scare away their potential challengers and they'll begin to run unopposed. Another very important factor, especially for general elections, is the composition of the district or the locality. So if that area is heavily Democratic or Republican, you'll see [the other party] won't even try to mount a challenge. That's even doubly so if you've got an incumbent that's running.”
Well-qualified candidates for office are going to decide whether to run strategically, he said, and base their decisions on a number of factors, including composition of the district, mood of the general public and incumbency. Their ability to raise money also plays a role in the decision.
“The prescription for reform really depends on what you think is the impediment to competition,” McDonald said. “I would say that there's no single reform that's going to solve this problem.”
But, he said, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Even when incumbents are extremely popular, the lack of a conversation about alternatives could be a problem.
“One of the conditions for democratic accountability is elections as the means of controlling government,” he said. “If elections are not meaningful in terms of accountability, then that does pose a problem. It is concerning to myself and a lot of other people that we have a lack of competition in the country.”