Spending Surges in `Year of the Millionaire'
Campaigns careening toward new spending records as critics decry a government `up for sale'
THE day after struggling Democratic candidate Mark Roosevelt upstaged well-funded Massachusetts Republican Gov. William Weld in a televised debate last week, the phones at his headquarters started ringing off the hooks.
``In the first three hours we raised about $30,000,'' says Dwight Robson, a spokesman for the Roosevelt campaign. ``And in two days we had $70,000.'' Governor Weld, way ahead in the polls, has $1-million campaign chest to spend by Nov. 8.
But these are paltry sums in this election year now careening toward breaking all previous spending levels for individual political campaigns for Congress.
According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) more than $388 million in campaign funds were raised by all Senate and House candidates between January 1993, and June 30 of this year, up by 5 percent over the same period in 1992.
And 85 eager candidates have to date spent $100,000 or more of their own money, more than double the personal spending in the 1992 election. The Senate is now home to 28 millionaires and 50 millionaires reside in the House, according to federal financial-disclosure records.
In the money-raising and spending frenzy, a surprising shift may have occurred. The FEC indicated last week that some Republican challengers have at least as much and sometimes more campaign funds than Democratic incumbents.
In recent congressional elections, incumbents outspent challengers by wide margins, often heavily bankrolled with money raised from PACs (political action committees). The power of the incumbents to draw funds from PACs and special-interest groups has been crucial to winning elections.
But Oliver North, running in Virginia as a Republican candidate for the Senate, has a staggering $15.1 million to spend. Most of the money was raised through direct- mail solicitations from a network established by his fundraising efforts to defend himself during the Iran Contra affair. His opponent, Democrat incumbent Charles Robb, has raised a little over $4 million.
The most expensive race is are the two millionaire Senate candidates in California. Democrat incumbent Dianne Feinstein and Republican challenger Michael Huffington - who has relied heavily on his oil fortune - are reported to be spending between $65,000 and $100,000 a day. Total combined spending could reach as high as $27 million.
``People said that 1992 was the year of the woman in campaigning,'' says Larry Makinson, an analyst at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., ``and I think this is the year of the millionaire. It's so expensive to run that you've either got to be a millionaire or raise enough money through interested parties such as special-interest groups. Heaven help us if Abe Lincoln were running for president today.''
The record for spending in a Senate campaign is $25.8 million set by Senator Jesse Helms (R.) of North Carolina and his opponent in 1984. By comparison, when Vice President Al Gore ran for reelection to the Senate in 1990, he had almost $2.7 million to spend, including about $1.2 million contributed by PACs. His opponent spent under $7,000.
In this election, PAC contributions from health-care interests to candidates are 20 percent higher than 1992. ``Money follows hot issues,'' says Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, ``so health-care interests boosted their giving during the health-care debate.''
As issues and money shift in the economy, new players gain importance. The Mashantucket Pequot tribe, owners of the Foxwoods gambling casino in Ledyard, Conn., recently contributed over $315,000 to the Democratic Party's national committee, making the tribe one of the largest contributors.
Their contribution, known as ``soft money,'' goes to a general fund rather to a specific candidate. Two other big ``soft money'' donors in this election include Beneficial Management Corporation with $414,750 mostly given to Democrats, and Atlantic Richfield with $407,781 for Republican candidates.
But overall, according to the FEC, support by PACs this election has declined by 1 percent while individual contributions has risen by 9 percent.
``The people who fund campaigns are placing their bets differently,'' says W. Lance Bennett, chairman of the political science department at the University of Washington in Seattle. ``The horse race ... for campaign contributors ... is tightening up. Some of the challengers look like better bets.''
``Part of the reason more money is being raised these days,'' says Mr. Makinson, ``is because a huge crop of political consultants has placed itself between the voters and the candidates, and basically [a candidate] has to go through them to get to the other.''
Campaigns today raise money through appeals to targeted groups of voters with direct-mail campaigns, through analysis of demographics, and use of testing ads and campaign strategies in focus groups. ``In big campaigns you have a quick response center too,'' says Makinson. ``They are looking at the ads of the opponent and ready to change messages on a dime. All of this is very expensive.''
As the level of sophistication in campaigning and spending by individual candidates increases, is it good for American politics? ``It's a disaster,'' says Mr. Bennett, ``because it means the government is up for sale, and that's one of the reasons citizens are outraged.''