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Hype aside, all Senate races are created equal

With all the attention being given to the prospect of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani facing off for one of New York's two US Senate seats, we are at risk of forgetting that voters in 32 other states will also select senators in the 2000 election.

The winners in Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware, North Dakota, and Montana - the least populous of the states (ranging from 481,000 to 880,000 residents) in which there are contests - will each have one vote in the Senate, just like New York's new senator.

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In New York, he or she will represent around 18 million residents. Unlike the political pundits who are fixated by that race, real political players understand the true value of Senate seats. Political action committees (PACs) invest nearly as many dollars in Senate contests in the smallest states as in the largest.

Thus, Barbara Boxer of California and Harry Reid of Nevada received similar amounts in PAC contributions to help finance their 1998 reelection campaigns. Other factors (ideology, committee membership, and closeness of the contest) may influence where PACs invest. But they know that a senator from Wyoming or Alaska is worth every bit as much as one from California or New York. Indeed, a PAC contribution in a small state will deliver a bigger bang for the buck than one in a far more expensive, large-state contest.

In fact, my colleague Frances Lee and I have found that small-state senators are in a number of ways strategically advantaged, compared to their populous-state colleagues.

Small-state senators are able to establish closer relationships with their constituents and, in turn, earn higher job approval ratings than senators from large states.

Small-state senators on average win elections by wider margins and, accordingly, have more leeway in office. Representing more homogeneous constituencies, they are not subject to the same interest-group pounding from all directions that their colleagues from large states face on almost every issue.

Over the years small-state senators have had the flexibility to provide deciding votes on ratifying the Panama Canal treaties, the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia, the Clinton economic package in 1993, and the balanced budget constitutional amendment.

By contrast, senators from diverse, populous states are going to offend sizable segments of their constituency every time they cast a roll call vote.

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Financing a reelection campaign is a far less arduous task for small-state senators. Because their campaign costs are manageable, small-state senators spend less time fund-raising, and they concentrate that activity in the final two years of their terms. In the largest states, where an incumbent senator often raises more than $15 million to finance a reelection bid, there is no fund-raising break.

Further, small-state senators can depend on PACs to contribute a sizable percentage of overall campaign funds, while large-state senators must engage more heavily in the time-consuming process of tapping individual contributors.

Is it any wonder that the most influential positions in the Senate, those of the party floor leaders, which were once dominated by large-state senators (Lucas of Illinois, Johnson of Texas, Taft of Ohio, Knowland of California, Dirksen of Illinois, and Scott of Pennsylvania) have in recent years been occupied by senators from West Virginia, Kansas, Maine, South Dakota, and Mississippi?

Senators from the largest states no longer have the flexibility or time necessary to lead the Senate.

Finally, because there are so many small-state senators and so few from large states, the Senate designs policies in ways that distribute federal dollars disproportionately to the small states.

Whether the first lady or the mayor or someone else succeeds Pat Moynihan in the Senate, that person will have the considerable clout that comes with being a senator. In terms of political influence in the Senate, however, the contest to succeed Richard Bryan of Nevada or the late John Chafee of Rhode Island may well be more important. Those races deserve attention too.

*Bruce Oppenheimer, co-author with Frances Lee of 'Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation' (University of Chicago Press), is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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