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    Warner Vs. Warner: The Personal Fortune At Stake In The Bitter Virginia Race

    By Dwight L. Morris
    October 21, 1996

    It's true that the Virginia Senate race is not a cornerstone in the Democratic strategy to seize control of the chamber from the GOP this year. The contest, pitting incumbent Republican Sen. John Warner against Virginia businessman Mark Warner (no relation) has not, so far at least, looked encouraging for the Democratic Party. (The PoliticsNow ratings and our columnists put the race in the "comfortable GOP" category.) Despite controversy over a recent advertisement, the incumbent is widely acknowledged to be ahead just two weeks before the election.

    But if the Democratic challenger is defeated, it won't be because the candidate lacks the financial resources or the willingness to use them freely. In fact, the candidacy of Mark Warner has relied heavily on pouring his personal fortune into the campaign a la Michael Huffington.

    Through September 30, Mark Warner had spent $6.5 million, including $5.6 million of his own money. If one throws out Huffington's obscene and unsuccessful $30 million effort to unseat California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1994 – more than $28 million of which came from his own bank account – Mark Warner's spending through September was already three times as much as the average Senate challenger spent in 1990, 1992, and 1994.

    Importantly, Mark Warner's self-financed spending spree was nearly $2.1 million more than John Warner had put into the defense of his seat – and the Republican faced what was considered a formidable challenge in the primary from the far right by the Ollie North-backed candidacy of James C. Miller III.

    Five Percent For Fund-raising
    As a largely self-financed candidate, Warner had invested only about 5 percent of his massive budget towards fund-raising through the end of September. This allowed him to pour more than $4.3 million into television and radio advertising. The ads (created and placed by Trippi, McMahon & Squier of Alexandria, Va.) accounted for 67 percent of his total outlays.

    The typical challenger's expenditure in 1990 and 1992 for fund-raising was roughly 20 percent of the overall budget. If Huffington's self-financed campaign is excluded from the calculation, the same could be said about the 1994.

    In none of the past three election cycles (again excluding Huffington) did the average challenger put more than 45 percent of his or her resources into television and radio commercials. While some clearly spent far more (Huffington spent $28 million) and others spent far less, Mark Warner had, by September 30, already spent more than twice as much as the typical challenger paid for such ads during the campaigns of 1990, 1992, and 1994.

    No statewide campaign can be waged without a substantial organization, and Mark Warner's challenge is no exception.

    Through the end of September, he had invested more than $1.3 million in overhead, including $798,320 in net staff salaries, benefits, and payroll taxes. His office rent payments totaled $92,703, and his telephone bills amounted to $135,755, including $13,882 for cellular phone usage. Warner's travel bills totaled $89,666, including $24,688 spent on air charters and a $424 payment to Alexander Manufacturing in Mason City, Iowa, for use of it's corporate aircraft.

    Computer equipment, software and system maintenance had cost Mark Warner's campaign $138,248. Another $27,987 was paid to UUNET of Richmond, Va., for "on-line services," which we have counted as other advertising. His home page on the Internet currently provides users with the complete text, audio and video to his most recent "response" ad, as well as a host of other campaign-related information.

    Constituency of Gratitude
    None of this may matter, since both Democrats and Republicans in Northern Virginia appear determined to thank John Warner for actively opposing fellow Republican Oliver North's 1994 challenge to Virginia's Democratic Senator, Charles S. Robb. After Warner labeled North a disgrace for lying to Congress about his actions on behalf of Nicaragua's Contra rebels and actively campaigned against North, many of the state's Democratic voters crossed over in this year's Republican primary to help Warner beat back a challenge mounted by the party's right wing. Their gratitude appears to have spilled over into the general election.

    Unlike many incumbents, John Warner did not invest heavily in a permanent campaign operation.

    Between January 1, 1991 and December 31, 1994 he spent just $214,278, including $58,915 (27 percent) donated to other Republican candidates, party committees, charitable organizations and causes. He did not maintain a permanent campaign office. His total payroll and payments for staff benefits during this four-year period amounted to only $15,372. He did not tap his campaign treasury to cover the cost of an automobile. Campaign-related travel cost $34,682, including $25,169 for air charters. Meals with Republican leaders across the state, as well as meals at the Senate restaurant, totaled $24,067.

    Recognizing that he would face a stiff challenge from within his own party and virtually assured of a strong Democratic challenge, Warner spent more than $1 million on his campaign in 1995. After spending just $15,966 to raise $63,234 during the first four years of the election cycle, Warner pumped $381,817 into his fund-raising operation in 1995 – an investment that helped him raise nearly $1.6 million. He opened a campaign office and paid out staff salaries and benefits totaling more than $200,000.

    Primary Problems
    To beat back the primary challenge posed by Miller, a former budget director in the Reagan administration, Warner spent nearly $2.3 million during the first six months or 1996, including $1,038,436 paid to his media consultant, Greg Stevens & Company of Alexandria, Va. Pre-primary persuasion mail cost $106,532. Fund-raising consumed $344,145 of his budget during this six-month period. Travel bills amounted to $57,351, including four payments totaling $2,179 to corporations for the use of their aircraft. Salaries and payroll taxes totaled $278,885. Warner spent $13,879 on yard signs, $4,556 on various campaign events, and $3,000 on opposition research. He won 65 percent of the primary votes.

    Once the primary was over and Miller repudiated, Senator Warner turned his attention to his Democratic challenger. However, with polls showing him with a comfortable lead throughout the summer and early fall, the incumbent has not tried to match his opponent's advertising spending. Between July 1 and September 30 – while Mark Warner was spending $2,813,717 on ads that have turned increasingly negative as he failed to close the gap – John Warner spent "just" $564,218 on commercials.

    False Advertising
    But John Warner's party has stepped in to make up for some of the difference – once with disastrous results: To guard against a November surprise, the National Republican Senatorial Committee picked up the tab for several rounds of negative advertising, including a spot portraying Mark Warner as just another tax-and-spend liberal. The commercial showed doctored photographs of the challenger supposedly shaking hands with President Clinton and former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder. When it was revealed that Mark Warner's head had been superimposed on the body of Sen. Robb, resulting in considerable negative publicity, the incumbent pulled the spot and fired his media advisor. It may be too soon to know whether that ugly ethical lapse will cost the incumbent his job – but at this point, don't look for an upset in this race.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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