Democrats Struggle Against Flood of Money
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 18, 1998; Page A01
In his run for Congress, Brian Baird heeded the ominous warnings by party leaders that the cash-strapped Democratic Party would not have much money to give out this election year. Competing for the open seat in Washington state's 3rd District, the psychologist has raised a stunning $862,000 and poured almost half into television commercials.
"Even before the attack ads began running we thought it was going to be close," said Baird campaign manager Paige Richardson. "When somebody throws $700,000 worth of that kind of . . . advertising at you, it definitely has an impact."
Baird's struggle to weather an unprecedented Republican assault over the airwaves is a microcosm of the final weeks of the 1998 congressional campaigns. The GOP -- capitalizing on its traditional financial edge -- is pouring millions of dollars into TV advertising on behalf of its candidates, swamping the Democratic Party's ability to respond in kind.
In some of the most hotly contested House and Senate races, Democratic candidates such as Baird are keeping pace and in some cases even exceeding their Republican opponents in money raised, according to a review of the most recent Federal Election commission reports, filed last week.
But the parity enjoyed by some individual Democrats could be overwhelmed by the millions of dollars the national GOP is pumping into direct financial support to candidates and "issue ads," which by law cannot endorse a candidate but leave little doubt about their point of view.
Overall, national Republican committees have outraised their Democratic counterparts $260 million to $165 million, according to the reports and information provided by the committees. With much of that money going into last-minute ads, Republicans boast they have the resources to gain anywhere from three to six Senate seats and at least a half-dozen House seats to their 11-seat advantage.
Democrats counter that the commercials aired by individual candidates such as Baird are more convincing than cookie-cutter issue spots produced by the national GOP. They add that the Democratic Party decided to focus its energies on voter turnout efforts that do not cost as much, but could mean the difference in close, midterm contests.
In the end, this season's late-breaking congressional contests are developing into a test of the efficacy of party issue advertising, a phenomenon that burst onto the political landscape two years ago but remains a hotly debated tool.
"Late money means something, I'm just not sure it means a lot of things," said Bernadette Budde, who tracks the races at the fiscally conservative Business Industry Political Action Committee. "It only works where you've had some infrastructure built to take advantage of it."
Although Democrats always lag behind in fund-raising, the financial situation is particularly acute this year because the Democratic National Committee ended the 1996 campaign in record debt and was then forced to divert more than $15.6 million of its badly needed receipts to pay the legal bills for the investigations that grew out of the campaign fund-raising abuses of that election.
"If we had not done that, it would have been available for campaigns," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the DNC general chairman. Having to divert money to pay off the DNC's massive debt "was very harmful," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "I feel Democrats have paid a price . . . it's affecting us now."
That already difficult situation was exacerbated by the effect of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal on fund-raising in August and September. Before President Clinton's Aug. 17 admission of an affair, loyal Democrats kept up the flow of contributions to the party.
"The whole thing with Monica Lewinsky spooked everyone for a while," said one Democratic strategist. "People crawled into their shell for about a month. It killed the type of excitement you want at that point."
A much-vaunted plan to raise at least $18 million for the DNC and the party's House and Senate campaign arms has fallen far short of its goal, so far raising just over $11 million. Although an event was hurriedly tacked onto the schedule for late October, the "unity" program probably will not exceed $13 million, Democratic officials said.
Another Democratic strategist involved in the effort said the fund-raising events in Washington, normally a fertile source of campaign cash, were particularly disappointing. "Inside-the-Beltway fund-raising came up way short because the atmosphere was poisoned for so long," the strategist said.
To make up the shortfall, the DNC recently took out an emergency $4.4 million loan, $3 million of which was divided equally between the House and Senate committees. But the DNC's support to state parties and the two campaign committees trails that of previous election cycles.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), says it has some $20 million for issue advertising to bolster its House candidates, compared with the Democrats' $7 million. The commercials do not explicitly call for the election or defeat of particular candidates -- and therefore do not count against the $65,100 each party can directly supporting candidates -- but they identify candidates by name and often attack the other side's position. Outside interest groups also target races on both sides with issue ads.
To some extent, Republicans are engaged in advertising bluster, said John Hutchens, a Democratic media buyer who estimates the NRCC has so far purchased $7 million to $10 million in spots. "They'll spend more money than Democrats," said Hutchens. "But not on the scale of the urban legend circulating around D.C."
Hutchens said the NRCC has focused its heaviest ad purchases on about a half-dozen of the most competitive House races. In contests such as Wisconsin 2, Nevada 1 and Ohio 6, the GOP has run a solid month's worth of extremely biting spots.
One NRCC ad accusing Baird as being soft on crime charged: "Brian Baird wouldn't support trying even the most violent juveniles as adults."
The NRCC is also putting the legal maximum amount in direct aid into at least 90 races this year, compared with between 35 and 45 House races the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hopes to fully fund.
A look at their comparative fund-raising tells the story. House Democrats raised about $32 million as of Sept. 30, a record for the committee. But Republicans raked in more than double that amount, $77 million.
"We don't pretend that we're going to compete with them financially," said DCCC Executive Director Matt Angle. "The question is do you have enough money to play in the districts that are really in question, and in those districts do you have enough money to tell your story and we feel that we do."
On the Senate side, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has already spent $5.5 million on issue ads attacking Democrats on issues such as taxes and crime, with more to come. Its first spots began airing in June in the close reelection race of Sen. Lauch Faircloth (N.C.). By August, the committee was advertising heavily in Nevada, Kentucky, South Carolina and Wisconsin -- all states where Republicans have good opportunities to pick up seats.
"We felt what we needed to do is create an atmosphere in which Democratic incumbents would be more vulnerable and that guided our earlier activity," said NRSC Executive Director Steven Law. "To have this many Democrat seats in play we think is a sign of the effectiveness of what we've done."
In contrast, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee plans to spend $8 million on its issue advocacy campaign. Individual races offer a dramatic portrait of how party money can bolster an individual campaign. Republicans hold 55 of the 100 Senate seats.
In South Carolina, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) has spent roughly $1 million on media since Labor Day, compared to GOP Rep. Bob Inglis's estimated $560,000 ($200,000 of which is for ads in the coming two weeks). But the state GOP, with money from the NRSC, has spent $725,000 on pro-Inglis ads, including $200,000 last week alone.
Another endangered Democrat, Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), is in a financial bind because he pledged not to accept party issue advertising on his behalf. The NRSC, by contrast, has dumped more than $1 million into commercials bolstering GOP Rep. Mark W. Neumann. "The average Wisconsin voter saw 20 spots for Neumann before they saw a single one for Senator Feingold," said Feingold spokesman Tony Taylor.
That is not to say all Republicans are satisfied with the aid they are receiving from the party. One particularly nasty spat has erupted in Washington state, where the NRSC has provided only $17,500 of the maximum $540,000 in direct support to Rep. Linda A. Smith, who is challenging Sen. Patty Murray (D). Smith has been an outspoken proponent of campaign finance reform, while the head of the NRSC, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), is its chief foe.
Washington Republican Chairman Dale Foreman contrasted the paltry sum from the Senate committee with the amount the state party has received from other Republican committees: more than $1 million from the NRCC for issue ads on behalf of House candidates and more than $250,000 from the RNC for voter turnout.
"We're very disappointed with the help we have not been receiving from the NRSC," he said. "You'd think that the majority party that controls the United States Senate would be able to raise enough money to fully fund their viable candidates."
Democrats meanwhile, are hoping their cheaper, voter turnout efforts can compete with the GOP media onslaught.
"In terms of raw dollars [Republicans] are outspending us," said Gary Gray, campaign manager to Democrat Shelley Berkley, a House candidate in Las Vegas who has been under heavy attack by the NRCC. "But we have seen more direct field activity, more person-to-person voter contact and volunteer telephone work -- the real grass-roots organizing -- and that is completely absent from any Republican campaign."
But the Republican ad wave can still be intimidating. As Richardson, Baird's manager, put it: "I've never even worked for anybody who could afford a $12,000 spot."
Researchers Nathan Abse and Ben White contributed to this report.
Race for Congress: The Money Chase
In millions, 1997-98 election cycle
GOP committee Amt. raised
Democratic committee Amt. raised
Here's a look at the bank accounts of key congressional contenders.
Cash on hand
Alabama 4-- Gadsden
Robert Aderholt (R)$740,684
Don Bevill (D)$28,043
Famous congressman's son Bevill never raised the money to mount a serious bid.
Colorado 2 -- Boulder
Bob Greenlee (R)$74,076
Mark Udall (D)$214,484
Personal wealth, stint as Denver mayor make Greenlee a strong prospect in seat held by Democrats for 12 years.
Idaho 2 -- Pocatello
Michael Simpson (R)$28,274
Richard Stallings (D)$171,251
Former representative Stallings's popularity and cash are giving Democrats a rare shot in very-Republican Idaho.
Iowa 3-- Ames
*Leonard Boswell (D)$163,202
Larry McKibben (R)40,142
State Sen. McKibben hopes GOP's advertising helps knock out this vulnerable freshman.
Kentucky 4-- Covington
Gex Williams (R)$138,180
Ken Lucas (D)$88,390
Christian right-backed Williams trying to resurrect once-favored bid against tough conservative Democrat.
Ohio 1-- Cincinnati
*Steve Chabot (R)$368,799
Roxanne Qualls (D)$428,684
Last-minute spending could determine outcome between popular mayor and well-liked incumbent.
Oregon 1 -- Portland
Molly Bordonaro (R)$314,610
David Wu (D)$15,140
Wu hitting the airwaves big; needs to paint Bordonaro as right-wing extremist to win.
Washington 1-- Puget Sound
*Rick White (R)$328,540
Jay Inslee (D)$413,410
Will former representative Inslee's pro-Clinton spot, money and presence of conservative third-party candidate add up to victory?
Jim Bunning (R)$1,486,236
Scotty Baesler (D)$556,701
Bunning's campaign coffers, combined with huge infusion by national GOP, mean uphill fight for Baesler.
New York Senate
*Alfonse M. D'Amato (R)$6,591,842
Charles E. Schumer (D)$1,315,668
Scrappy challenger Schumer hoping big-name Democrats can raise the money for bloody battle on airwaves.
SOURCES: Federal Election Commission, national parties
-- Ben White
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