Big Money Redefines Illinois Rematch
By Guy Gugliotta
On Tuesday, Evans (D), 47, a onetime anti-poverty lawyer from the Mississippi River city of Rock Island, won a ninth House term by defeating Baker (R), 39, a former television news anchor from the south district city of Quincy, by 6,056 votes out of 194,200 cast.
It was a rematch for the two men, and the final percentage spread was virtually the same as in 1996. Evans, a liberal labor Democrat, used a huge advantage in the industrial "Quad Cities" of Moline and Rock Island to fend off Baker's conservative strength in the business community and among rural farmers.
The difference between 1996 and 1998 was money. Baker, by his analysis, "came out of nowhere" to take Evans to the brink in 1996, and the political parties took notice, as did the powerful interest groups that have often made a crucial difference in the campaigns of the 1990s.
"My first campaign was a labor of love," Evans said on Election Day. "This time it was about the business of raising money."
Illinois' 17th District in 1998 became one of perhaps 30 "target" districts nationwide. The GOP had to have it to expand its majority. That Evans was able to hold it is one reason why Democrats made history in Tuesday and gained seats in a midterm election year.
On the advice of the cash-strapped national Democratic Party, Evans started early looking for his own "hard" money – or direct campaign contributions – and with a late surge had raised more than $1.1 million by yesterday, eclipsing the $630,000 he raised and spent in 1996.
Evans said his "key" was a growing base of small donors to whom the campaign returned repeatedly, using house parties, leaflets and an installment donation plan to "generate excitement." By Oct. 14, the latest date for which statistics are available, nearly 60 percent of his individual contributions, or $244,196, had come from people who gave less than $200.
But Evans, as has been the case throughout his career, also was labor's darling, and more than one-third of his contributions, as of Oct. 14, came from the $321,250 he collected from union political action committees.
Evans also received at least $403,000 worth of outside help: The national Democrats contributed $175,000 in television advertising and various in-kind payments, while at least $208,000 was spent on his behalf by the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the liberal advocacy group Citizen Action.
The AFL-CIO only spent $20,000 in pro-Evans television ads, but the army of union activists in the district was a major reason why Evans trounced Baker by nearly 10,000 votes in blue-collar Rock Island County, a margin Baker never overcame.
Labor sources said they could not say exactly how much the federation spent on mailings, phone banking and the three full-time "Labor '98" coordinators the union had on the ground in Illinois 17. But Baker acknowledged yesterday that the union ground forces were "big" in Rock Island County, as were the 18 volunteers shipped into the district in mid-July by the Democratic Party's soft money "Victory Fund."
"They just fed right into the machine," Baker said in an interview. "We saw people standing in line at the polls yesterday [Tuesday] morning with overcoats over pajamas. That tells me they were dragged out of bed."
Pointing to the Evans-Baker race, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (Ga.) told colleagues in a conference call yesterday, "We got beat on the ground," according to participants.
Baker had raised $507,000 in 1996 but agreed with Evans that it would probably take $1 million to compete in 1998. By yesterday, he had raised $1.25 million, he said.
His most important donors were from business and agriculture. By Oct. 14, his $423,526 was the most PAC money raised by a House challenger this election. His largest block of money – $45,400 – came from the executives and PAC of Deere & Co., the largest private employer in the district.
The Republican Party was Baker's biggest outside benefactor, contributing $423,000 in issue-advocacy television advertising, mailings, phone banks and in-kind payments for miscellaneous expenses. In October, the party bought $295,000 in three waves of "Operation Breakout," pro-Baker television ads.
Baker also received at least $91,000 in phone banks, voter guides, mailings and television ads from groups including National Right to Life, National Rifle Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the "Coalition" of three dozen business associations.
Of the outside players, however, only the national Republican Party and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats, bombarded voters with network ads, as was popular in 1996.
Instead, 1998 marked the beginnings of pure "issue advocacy" among some players. The Sierra Club spent more than $100,000 on pro-Evans television ads, touting the evils of large hog farms, and counted the campaign a success when he took a position in September supporting federal regulation of the farms. "We made the environment part of the debate," said Daniel J. Weiss, Sierra Club political director.
Similarly, the AFL-CIO ran one pro-Evans ad on health care reform in July, and "once we felt we had provided positive reinforcement" to Evans's position, "we moved on," said Denise Mitchell, AFL-CIO communications director.
And finally, the Coalition, a major television player in 1996 and labor's sworn enemy in the interest-group wars, eschewed the networks and spent $42,000 on targeted anti-Evans cable TV ads.
"The political parties have out-monied us," said the Chamber of Commerce's Bruce Josten, the Coalition's founder. "The way you break through the clutter is to be very focused – you buy to reach people who are sensitive to legislation and politics and to your message. The rest is just noise."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company