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Washington Politicians Outfinance Rivals - They May Need To

PUBLIC regard for politicians may be close to historic lows, but the capacity of Washington incumbents to raise money for reelection is headed for a new high.

``The gap between incumbents and challengers is growing ever wider,'' says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. ``For challengers, this means having to raise more of [their] personal money than ever before.''

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According to data released last week by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the average incumbent already has raised $245,037 for this year's House race; the average challenger, $47,704. (See chart, Page 18.) The gap for Senate races is even larger: The average incumbent senator had raised $1.4 million more than the average challenger as of March 31.

``What this is saying is that we will set spending records yet again,'' Ms. Miller says. Incumbents are seeing an increase from ``economically interested sources,'' especially from professional and industry groups affected by health-care legislation, she says.

In the next few months, businesses, political action committees (PACs), and large individual contributors will be taking a hard look at the prospects for challengers in the 1994 campaign. In the race for big-ticket contributions, however, newcomers carry a heavy handicap.

The Omaha-based agricultural giant ConAgra, for example, has already contributed about 60 percent of what it expects to give in the '94 election cycle - about $200,000, spokesman Dick Gady says. In Nebraska's Senate race, the company has funded the incumbent, Sen. Robert Kerrey (D), despite a stronger affinity for the views of the Republican challenger, Jan Stoney.

``The incumbent serves on the Agriculture [Nutrition and Forestry] Committee, where a lot of decisions affect us. We have common interests,'' Mr. Gady says.

``On the other hand,'' he adds, ``the Republican candidate [Jan Stoney] is more philosophically aligned toward business. This may be a race where we find it necessary to help both candidates articulate their views.''

Stoney campaign officials hope they will be able to persuade such contributors that her candidacy is viable - and a key measure of viability is fund-raising.

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The Stoney campaign is $1.9 million behind Senator Kerrey's fund-raising pace as of March 31, but campaign officials play down that gap. Instead, an April 18 press release emphasizes that Ms. Stoney is $35,000 ahead of where Kerrey was in his winning 1988 campaign, when he was the challenger.

Stoney has spent time in Washington recently collecting key Republican Party endorsements and talking with national industry groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the Chamber of Commerce. ``All this should translate into money,'' says Stoney campaign spokesman Stuart Roy.

``The Republican registration advantage in Nebraska is close to 70,000,'' he adds. ``But some of the money people in Washington still don't see that Kerrey is vulnerable.''

When big Washington money is not forthcoming, many challengers are self-financing their way to credibility. According to FEC reports, Stoney has contributed $51,000 to her own campaign; the incumbent, $0.

This case fits a national pattern. Challengers running for US Senate seats this year have given more than $9.6 million of their own money to their campaigns, according to a Monitor analysis of the most recent FEC data. Thus far, only two incumbent senators have had to commit personal funds to their campaigns.

In California, Republican challenger Michael Huffington has funded effectively all campaign expenses himself, more than $4.1 million reported to date. Texas Democratic challenger Richard Fisher has bankrolled his own campaign past $3.4 million. Forty-five out of 59 other Senate challengers have committed an average of $45,185 of personal money to their campaigns.

The good news for challengers is that they may not need to match incumbents dollar for dollar to win.

``The cost of beating incumbents has gone down for the last two election cycles,'' says Larry Makinson, who analyzes campaign spending for the Center for Responsive Politics. ``Incumbents have vastly greater resources than challengers, but if you can reach a certain threshold amount, you can get your message across.''

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