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    Money Talks
    It's an Incumbent's World

    By Dwight Morris
    Special to washingtonpost.com
    Monday, Aug. 10, 1998

    Talk about a stacked deck. As the period comes to a close for potential House candidates to declare their bids, all signs indicate that more than 100 House incumbents will run unopposed this November. And the good news for incumbents doesn't begin to stop there.

    Currently, 850 candidates are still in the hunt for House seats: 401 incumbents; 343 challengers; and 106 open-seat contestants. Together they have raised more than $250 million over the past eighteen months. But incumbents have collected more than $186 million – three-quarters of that money.

    Big Money for Officeholders: As of June 30, 109 unopposed incumbents had raised an average of $392,225. This group, which is already guaranteed another two-year term, includes six who raked in more than $1 million and another 14 who raised more than $500,000. Only five members of this well-heeled club raised less than $100,000.

    On average, incumbents facing the indignity of a challenge this November had amassed $491,870 by the end of June. In that group, 111 raised an average of $421,647, a hefty sum for a pack slated to face challengers who have so far failed to raise more than $10,000.

    Bleaker Picture for Challengers: For the loyal but largely hapless opposition still vying for the chance to be throttled in November, the numbers are bleak: 151 raised less than $10,000, including 128 who collected less than $5,000. While 101 challengers raised as much as $100,000, only one amassed as much as $1 million.

    Officeholders on both sides of the aisle have the fund-raising touch. Republican incumbents raised an average of $510,725, trouncing their Democratic challengers, who took in an average of $93,264. Democratic incumbents took in an average of $423,965, compared to their Republican challengers, who raised an average of $107,384.

    Cash Cows: Money for incumbents pours in from all quarters. Individual contributors gave the average incumbent 53 percent of his or her money, and political action committees (PACs) ponied up 41 percent. A variety of sources including loans and interest on campaign cash reserves made up the remaining 6 percent. California Republican David Dreier, for example, will undoubtedly collect more in interest on his cash reserves of $2,984,448 than he will spend to defeat Democrat Janice Marian Nelson, who has raised just $68,569.

    Everyone loves a winner, and PAC managers are certainly no exception. During the first 18 months of this election cycle, PACs funneled more than $76 million into the coffers of incumbents seeking reelection. PACs gave an average of $167,602 to unopposed incumbents; the committees gave an average of $198,928 to incumbents facing opposition this November.

    Challengers, however, are not nearly so fortunate, as their overall fund-raising numbers should suggest. Political pragmatists that they are, PACs are loathe to back long shots. As a result, PACs have donated just $4.4 million to challengers who are still in the race. They gave less than $10,000 to more than three-quarters of challengers – 261 – and they have given as much as $100,000 to only 15.

    The Incumbent Advantage: Heading into the final four months of the campaign, House incumbents seeking reelection boasted cash reserves totaling $136 million – an average of roughly $340,000. Challengers, including a number who must still survive primary contests, had combined cash reserves of just over $14 million. Only 83 challengers had as much as $50,000 in the bank, and 38 of them donated or loaned their campaigns $10,000 or more.

    Obviously, there is wide variation around the averages, but in district after district the story line is the same:

  • House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has raised $4,878,472 – 85 percent of which has come from individual contributors. Though he spent $4,752,113 on a host of things pertaining more to solidifying his House leadership position than to his own reelection effort, Gingrich still has more than $1 million in reserve. His Democratic opponent, Gary "Bats" Pelphrey, has failed to raise as much as the $5,000.

  • Democratic leader Richard Gephardt raised $4,219,583, including more than $1 million from PACs. Five Republican challengers fighting for the right to face Gephardt have collectively raised $70,129, and none of them have raised more than $500 from PACs. While Gephardt has approximately $2.7 million in the bank – second only to Dreier among House incumbents – his five would-be opponents have combined cash reserves of only $13,888.

  • Former Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California has raised more than $2 million for his bid to recapture the seat he lost in 1996 to Loretta Sanchez, and he has done it without taking a single dollar from PACs. Unfortunately for Dornan, he has spent so much trying to raise money from small contributors that he currently has only $63,963 in his campaign bank account. Sanchez, on the other hand, has raised roughly $2.4 million to defend her seat, including $448,757 from PACs. Only nine incumbents can claim cash reserves greater than her $1,073,132.

  • Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) has raked in $533,669 from PACs, which accounts for 78 percent of the $681,502 he has raised. This November, he will face no Democratic opposition.

    Spending: In fact, for all but a handful of incumbents, the election is little more than an annoying formality. Over the past three election cycles, the average House incumbent devoted only about one-quarter of his or her spending to creating, producing and airing television and radio commercials. Many incumbents devote less than 10 percent of their money to communicating with voters through commercials and persuasion mail combined.

    And where does the rest of it go? Roughly one-fourth of all campaign funds are used to pay for offices that never close and the employees who staff them. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) epitomizes this permanent campaign structure: In 1997 he used $42,437 of his campaign treasury as a down payment on a building to house his headquarters. That same day, the campaign took out a $100,000 loan to finance the balance of the building.

    Candidates spend approximately one out of every six dollars to raise money, and for those who depend heavily on direct-mail solicitations, that figure can soar. Over the past 18 months, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.) has spent more than $1 million to raise $1.2 million from individual donors. This not-so-cost-effective push accounts for 80 percent of Armey's total spending during the period.

    Extracurricular Activities: Lawmakers spend campaign funds to entertain constituents who visit Washington. Every year the Louisiana delegation throws a Mardi Gras party – paid for entirely with campaign funds – for transplanted Louisianans in Washington. Republican Rep. Robert Livingston's share of the tab for the 1997 and 1998 soirees was $18,052.

    Some campaign money funds activities that a reasonable person might call lifestyle enhancements, including expensive automobiles. At the beginning of 1997, Rep. Bill Clay (D-Mo.) spent $703.25 of his campaign funds each month to lease a car from Ford Motor Credit. In May of that year he tapped the campaign treasury for the $1,069.55 down payment on a new leased car from Dave Pyle's Lincoln Mercury in Annandale, Va. The campaign now antes up $722.56 each month for Clay's driving pleasure.

    Incumbent House members routinely donate money from their own campaign coffers to other members of Congress, Republican and Democratic party coffers, challengers and open-seat candidates they hope to elect, charities, and various ideological groups. The donations total into the millions each election cycle.

    While Congress busily debates banning soft money, it is easy to see why few members ever show interest for limiting how much they can spend on their own "campaigns" or the things they can spend campaign money on.

    © Copyright 1998 Campaign Study Group

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