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    Wreaking Havoc

    By Dwight L. Morris
    December 20, 1996

    While Democrats could not have been happy with a net loss of three Senate seats on November 5, they ought to be thankful that the outcome was not considerably worse. Thanks to both a Supreme Court decision allowing federal party committees to spend unlimited sums on behalf of their candidates – as long as that spending was not coordinated with the candidates in any way – and to their superior fund-raising ability, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) poured more than twice as much as their Democratic counterparts into Senate races across the country.

    According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, the RNC spent $10,411,822 on behalf of the party's Senate hopefuls, all of it on so-called "coordinated campaigns" that allowed for full and open discussions with the candidates. The NRSC pumped $9,905,579 into those same races, all but $30,475 of which was in the form of supposedly independent campaigns in which no discussions were held with the candidates who benefited from the outlays – wink, wink.

    The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) managed to spend $9,442,597, $8,056,575 of which was invested in its coordinated campaign effort. However, despite coasting through much of the campaign with a double-digit lead, President Clinton was apparently unwilling to relinquish any of the money raised by the DNC, which reported spending absolutely nothing on behalf of the party's Senate candidates as of November 25. (It's hard to know how that decision will effect Clinton's relationship with Senate Democrats, but it probably won't help.)

    The cash from the national committees, when assimilated with other campaign money, has had a real impact on the shape of the Senate as the following examples illustrate:

    In Nebraska, Democrats were counting on popular Gov. Ben Nelson to hold the seat vacated by retiring Sen. James Exon. Throughout September and into October it looked like those hopes would be realized, and the DSCC put just $125,970 into television advertising created by Shorr & Associates of Philadelphia. Unfortunately for Nelson, political novice Ben Hagel rode to a come-from-behind victory largely on the strength of a $491,286 cash infusion from the national Republican committees.

    First, the RNC paid $146,567 to the Stuart Stevens Group of Alexandria, Va., the firm Hagel had retained to design and place his commercials. The NRSC then stepped in with a $344,719 "independent" media buy placed through Multi Media Services Corp., also of Alexandria. Since Multi Media places commercials but does not create them, one is left to wonder how placing ads designed by Hagel's media consultant could be construed as independent activity. The Republican effort was more than three times what the party would have been able to spend on Hagel's behalf under the rules in effect prior to the Supreme Court decision.

    In Alabama, where Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin opted to retire, the DSCC paid Trippi, McMahon & Squier $388,204 to create and place commercials on behalf of state senator Roger Bedford. The RNC countered by paying Murphy, Pintak & Gautier, $391,000 for commercials supporting the candidacy of Jeff Sessions, and unlike the Democrats, the Republicans were just warming up. The NRSC paid Greg Stevens & Company $23,872 in creative fees and poured another $513,400 into placing the commercials through Multi Media Services. Sessions pulled out a 52-to-46 percent victory.

    At one point, it looked as though no Republican would even make it into the general election in Louisiana, where candidates from all parties contest a single "jungle" primary. Three weeks before the primary, Republican support was so splintered among those hungering for the seat vacated by Democrat J. Bennett Johnston that two Democrats appeared poised to secure the top two spots and square off in the general election.

    At that point, the Republican hierarchy coalesced behind Louis "Woody" Jenkins, and the NRSC stepped in with a $497,273 advertising campaign designed to knock out Democrat Richard Ieyoub. Prior to the primary, the NRSC also spent roughly $127,000 to oppose Democrat Mary Landrieu, weakening the heavily favored Democrat to the point where Jenkins actually eked out a narrow victory.

    With the field narrowed to two candidates, the NRSC plowed more than $1 million into its independent campaign against Landrieu, while the RNC paid Courtney Communications $288,915. The DSCC picked up $145,000 in polling costs and spent $230,000 on commercials designed and placed by Strother/Duffy/Strother. Once considered a heavy favorite, Landrieu survived by the slimmest of margins.

    The story line was repeated in race after race, and the biggest winners in the process may well have been the Republican consultants. In all, five media consultants picked up more than $1 million each.

    Multi Media Services collected $5,872,339 from the NRSC for purchasing advertising air time associated with the independent campaigns.

    Greg Stevens raked in $2,102,262 from the NRSC and $1,582,821 from the RNC.

    John McLaughlin & Associates received $1,342,348 from the NRSC and another $734,614 from the RNC.

    The RNC paid National Media and Brabender Cox Political $1,831,414 and $1,166,000, respectively.

    Eleven other consultants collected at least $200,000 as a result of the Republican coordinated and independent campaign spending splurge.

    Keeping in mind that there were fewer dollars for Democratic consultants, they did not do too shabbily. Three media consultants receiving in excess of $1 million. Media Strategies & Research collected $1,407,760 from the DSCC, while Shrum, Devine & Donilon and Shorr Associates were paid $1,382,720 and $1,154,920, respectively.

    These expenditures occurred despite the fact that the parties had less than six months to take advantage of the Supreme Court's decision. One can only assume that the magnitude of independent expenditures will jump sharply two years from now, particularly because of the absence of a presidential race to siphon off the money.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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