Outside Money Wasn't Everything
By Ruth Marcus
In House races, outside expenditure on "issue advocacy" advertisements to support candidates may even have backfired. The GOP's House campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), spent nearly $25 million on such ads, including millions in last-minute commercials that invoked President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. In contrast, House Democrats could muster only $7 million for their issue ads.
But with the apparent five-seat Democratic gain in the House, even some members of the Republican leadership conceded in private conversations yesterday that the spending may have been counterproductive. "Relying on TV was a major tactical mistake," Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) said in a morning leadership conference call yesterday, according to one participant. "We got beat on the ground," NRCC Chairman John Linder (R-Ga.), acknowledged in a later telephone discussion among GOP leaders, participants said.
On the Senate side, however, where Democrats spent $12 million on issue ads compared to $8 million by Republicans, the effort seemed to pay off, at least in some races.
"We learned clearly that issue advocacy advertising can make a huge difference," said Michael Tucker, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), pointing to the $1.3 million the committee spent on advertising in North Carolina and more than $1.5 million in New York, where Democratic challengers John Edwards and Charles Schumer ousted Republican incumbents.
Steven Law, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, attributed the party's takeover of a Democratic-held Senate seat in Kentucky to $1.7 million spent on issue advocacy advertising. The DSCC spent $1.5 million on issue advertising in the state, buttressed by $460,000 spent on behalf of the Democratic candidate by a group advocating campaign finance reform.
But Law said that in retrospect, labor unions and others may have been correct to devote more of their resources across the country this cycle to efforts to get voters to the polls through direct mail and telephone calls rather than to television advertising.
"We're obviously going to spend some time thinking that over," he said. "I do think the TV made a huge difference, and several races would not have been close before Election Day if we had not played a major role in issue advocacy on television. But I do think you learn from the successes of your enemies."
The effect of issue advocacy spending by non-party outside groups was similarly unclear. A business-backed group, Americans for Job Security, spent $1.8 million on ads critical of Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who won reelection by a wide margin. David Carney, who runs the group, said that did not concern him. "It's what we're talking about that matters," he said.
And a Nevada hotel magnate, Sheldon Adelson, who plowed $2 million into an effort to unseat two Democratic members of a county commission and a third Democratic candidate came up empty-handed as all three Democrats won their races.
"Direct money seems to work in spades," said Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, which found that, in 95 percent of congressional contests, the candidate who raised the most money to spend advocating his own election won the race -- an even more overwhelming percentage than usual.
But, he said, "As far as the indirect money, the issue ads, the sense that I have . . . is that the ads aren't working as well as everyone thought they would and that the get-out-the-vote drive [by Democrats] turned out to be the more powerful weapon."
Although final fund-raising figures are not yet in, reports that detail candidates' activity through mid-October showed that, in the five House races where incumbent GOP representatives were ousted, two of the challengers, Dennis Moore (Kan.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) managed the unusual feat of raising more money than the incumbent member, and two others, Rush Holt (N.J.) and Jay Inslee (Wash.) remained within financial striking distance.
Similarly, in the sole loss yesterday by a Democratic incumbent, Wisconsin Rep. Jay Johnson had raised only $30,000 more than his Republican opponent as of Oct. 14.
In many of the most competitive open-seat contests, the race also went to the financially swiftest. All six Democrats who picked up open seats being vacated by Republicans raised more than their GOP opponents, in many cases by striking amounts. Likewise, all five Republicans who won open Democratic seats also reported raising more money than the losing Democratic candidate, again often by wide margins.
Not all winners enjoyed a financial advantage. In New Mexico, incumbent Republican Heather Wilson raised just $707,000 to challenger Phillip Maloof's $4.4 million, most of it from his own pocket.
On the Senate side, three candidates -- Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Schumer and Edwards -- managed to win and still spend less than their opponents, although all three victors raised significant sums.
The Democrats' only losing incumbent, Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, faced a wealthy challenger in state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. He raised $15.6 million to Moseley-Braun's $6.1 million, although that figure included $7 million that Fitzgerald plowed into winning the GOP primary.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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