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  •   In Tightest Races, Early Cash Means Staying Competitive

    Gex "Jay" Williams (Marvin Joseph/TWP)
    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 14, 1998; Page A06

    ERLANGER, Ky.—Immediately after his primary victory May 26, GOP House candidate Gex "Jay" Williams received calls from two of the most powerful Republicans in the House: Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.).

    The calls were more than just a courtesy. Armey and Livingston were offering just what Williams needed: cash. Even more important, they each promised to put together Washington fund-raising events that would give Williams a line into the affluent PAC community.

    For the newcomers who survived their primaries, the first crucial step in establishing the viability of a campaign is fund-raising. When polls are relatively useless and debates are still under preparation, money is the one clear, objective measure of a candidate's strength.

    For congressional candidates, including those in the eight tight races in the Ohio River Valley, a key deadline is Wednesday, when they must file fund-raising reports with the Federal Election Commission.

    At this stage, when voters are still peripheral, those who count – party activists, PAC directors, the national party staff, the media and local elected officials, and the opposition – will all be looking at those reports for one number: How much cash does each nominee have on hand?

    For Williams, a showcase candidate of the religious right, that amount has taken on special significance. In his earlier races for state Senate and state House, Williams was known as a politician who raised little money, winning with a powerful base of religious voters and high-tech tactics to identify voters.

    This year, however, he faces the Democratic Party's showcase conservative, Ken Lucas, the well-financed chief executive of the district's largest county, who will have access to sophisticated campaign technology and cash in his bid to portray Williams as a conservative zealot, far outside the mainstream.

    After a hard-fought primary against a candidate backed by the GOP establishment, Williams, at the end of May, was close to running out of cash. Lucas, unlike Williams, had token opposition in the primary, leaving him flush.

    The district here leans strongly toward the GOP, but Lucas's aides contend that on Wednesday he will report enough cash on hand – $357,000 – to turn the contest into a horse race.

    "It's a pretty bold statement from this campaign that we have raised enough money to start [radio ads] this soon, and we know we are going to have enough money to sustain us all the way through," said Bob Doyle, Lucas's professional fund-raiser.

    It is hard to overestimate the importance of money at this stage in a campaign. A failure to raise enough money creates a vicious spiral: Some donors become reluctant to invest their cash, and then state and national parties are less likely to target their unlimited "soft money" for party building and get out the vote drives in those races.

    Just to the north of here, in Indiana's 9th District, one of the reasons both Democratic and GOP analysts are giving a strong edge to Democrat Baron Hill is money. Hill has raised far more than his Republican opponent, state Sen. Jean Leising, for the open House seat. Hill aides say he will report about $350,000 in cash on hand, while Leising will report just over one-sixth of that, $60,000, according to Emily Freemond, Leising's press aide.

    Conversely, one of the key reasons that Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a Democrat, is considered a fully competitive challenger to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) is that she has demonstrated strong fund-raising ability. She will report "close to $400,000" in the bank, according to aides, within shooting distance of Chabot, who is expected to report just over $500,000.

    Here in this Kentucky district that extends from Ashland, Ky., in the east to the Louisville suburbs in the west, Williams faces a crucial test: Can he demonstrate the ability to raise the $750,000 to $800,000 it will take to mount a credible campaign?

    In most competitive districts, it takes a minimum of half a million dollars just to be considered a contender, and in areas with multiple, high-dollar television markets, a million is more realistic.

    Williams and his campaign manager, Craig Hendricks, were aware that their shortage of money could become a significant liability, prompting key players in Washington and in the state capital of Frankfort to drop Williams down a notch in the rankings of competitive races.

    They also knew that with the July 15 FEC reporting deadline, which At this stage of the race, the critical question is how much money candidates have on hand.

    covered the period ending June 30, they did not have much time to raise enough cash to stay afloat. So they leaped at the offer from Armey, who, as majority leader, was believed to have the muscle to get the PAC community to come across for a favored candidate.

    Armey's staff, however, did not call back to confirm the event, and the deadline was nearing. The Williams camp decided to use a little political leverage of its own – Armey and Livingston each want to succeed Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as House speaker and both already are seeking support from potential members. With that in mind, the Williams campaign called Armey's office and left a message, which, paraphrased, was: Williams was looking forward to the honor of a PAC event sponsored by Armey, but the FEC deadline is almost here and he's getting nervous. Livingston's folks really want to do something, but we'd like to work this out with you guys.

    Left unstated but easily inferred was the suggestion that Williams was irritated and might begin to align himself with Livingston in the prospective leadership fight. Armey got the message.

    Within two hours, Armey's staff was on the phone asking Williams's staff when a good day would be. They agreed on June 23. Not only would Armey host the event, but he would be joined by Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and House GOP Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio).

    It's not clear who told what to whom, but the campaign's expectations were raised high. In conversations with reporters, aides suggested that the event could raise as much as $100,000, a lot of money in a congressional race. When a fund-raiser was held, however, the receipts amounted to just $30,000, although another $15,000 to $20,000 appears to have come from those who pledged to give.

    Williams's goal for the current FEC reporting period was to raise enough to prevent Lucas from having much more than a 4-1 advantage. Williams now expects to report about $85,000, just under a quarter of the $357,000 Lucas expects.

    "I'm real pleased with what we are doing," Williams said in an interview. "He has a lot more cash on hand, but we've always had that kind of differential, and we always catch up. He had an easy primary, we had to spend it all. This is no different from every race I've run."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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