Battle for House Fuels Cash Race
By Ruth Marcus and Juliet Eilperin
While it is too soon in the election cycle to draw sweeping conclusions, reports filed recently with the Federal Election Commission show that at-risk freshmen and others facing potentially tough reelection campaigns have socked away unprecedented amounts of cash.
At the same time, a significant number of candidates seeking to unseat incumbents or win open seats also reported impressive opening bids -- setting the stage for intense and costly battles in key congressional districts across the country.
"We're raising record numbers, they're raising record numbers," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who heads the House Republicans' campaign arm. "It's Armageddon."
To understand the unrelenting money chase, consider the situation of Kansas Democrat Dennis Moore, who held his first fund-raiser for the 2000 election last December -- even before he had been sworn in for his freshman term.
"It was obscene," Moore said. "I was embarrassed."
But Moore keenly understood the importance of posting a healthy balance in the campaign account, and doing so early on. He decided to run for Congress after his predecessor, freshman Vince Snowbarger (R), reported an anemic fund-raising performance ($18,000) for the first six months of 1997. Determined not to let the same fate befall him during his first term, Moore raised $355,000 during the first half of the year, and no major opponent has yet emerged to challenge him.
Moore is far from alone. For freshmen and other incumbents with a shaky hold on their seats, the goal is to scare off potential opponents with a hefty bottom line. For challengers, the point of the early effort is to demonstrate their financial viability, not so much to the voters at home as to the party officials and lobbyists in Washington who will decide how much money to pump into their races.
While that is always part of the political dynamic, the pressures to raise large sums as early as possible are more intense than ever this year, mainly because of the high stakes posed by the slim five-vote GOP majority.
The first test came July 31, the deadline for candidates to report their fund-raising for the first six months of the year, and the first gauge of candidates' financial strength for the 2000 race.
The differences from only two years ago are striking. Then, Democratic freshmen had an average of $74,000 in the bank at the end of their first six months of fund-raising; this time around the number has climbed to $206,000. Likewise, Republican freshmen in 1997 had banked an average $109,000; this year, they have an average $203,000 on hand. First-termers facing tough reelection campaigns have amassed even more.
Other endangered incumbents did similarly well -- some astonishingly so. Minnesota Democrat Bill Luther reported $1.5 million in the bank, while four Republicans -- Californians Brian P. Bilbray and James E. Rogan, and Kentucky Reps. Anne M. Northup and Edward Whitfield -- reported more than $500,000 cash on hand.
Even some members who have traditionally been casual about early fund-raising have already kicked into high gear for the 2000 race: Democratic Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.), who is facing a tough race against GOP Michigan Secretary of State Candice Miller, has already put $327,000 in the bank, double what he had at this point two years ago. And Connecticut Democrat James H. Maloney, facing a rematch with state Sen. Mark Nielsen, reported almost $200,000 on hand, compared to $80,000 two years ago.
Challengers have also posted some significant showings.
Illinois Democrat Lane Evans, who almost always has a tough reelection fight, ended the reporting period with slightly less money on hand -- $123,000 -- than his GOP challenger, oral surgeon Harold Bayne, who ended with $126,000. Texas Democrat Ken Bentsen reported less cash on hand -- $188,000 -- than Republican Thomas Reiser, who had $213,000 in the bank but lent himself $177,000 of that.
In the GOP, Indiana Rep. John N. Hostettler had less in the bank -- $102,000 -- than Democratic businessman John Hamilton, who reported $122,000 but faces a primary challenge. Likewise, Utah Rep. Merrill Cook reported only $61,000 on hand, compared with $97,000 for Democrat Jim Matheson, son of the late governor Scott Matheson.
Overall, 16 Democrats challenging incumbents or running for open seats have raised more than $100,000 this year, compared to only three two years ago. Of those, six raised more than $200,000. On the Republican side, at least 18 candidates have raised more than $100,000, and five have collected more than $200,000.
"You need to show people that you have support in order to get more support, and the way you do that early on is through fund-raising," said Lisa Sherman, campaign manager for state Assemblywoman Susan Davis, who raised $250,000 in her effort to unseat Bilbray.
More than any other race, the battle over California's 27th District typifies this year's intense money race.
Republican Rogan has barely won the seat for two elections in a row, eking out a 50.8 percent showing last fall. His high-profile performance as one of the House "managers" bent on convicting President Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial drew him a top-tier challenger, state Sen. Adam Schiff.
Now both men are collecting more donations than anyone else in the nation: Rogan raised a staggering $1.4 million in the first six months of the year, while Schiff took in more than $500,000, an astonishing amount for a challenger and the most raised by any nonincumbent this year.
Impeachment has been a fund-raising boon for both candidates. The day the Senate acquitted Clinton, several GOP senators, including Texans Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, volunteered to raise money for Rogan. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has already hosted an event for Rogan and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) is planning to help him raise money in Texas.
Schiff, however, is not without friends of his own. While most major movie studio executives are backing Rogan, an avid defender of the entertainment industry in his district, Hollywood heavyweights David Geffen and Norman Lear hosted a fund-raiser for Schiff in Glendale's Dreamworks Animation Studios, which raked in nearly $100,000.
A similarly costly contest is taking shape on the East Coast in the tony suburb of Princeton, N.J., where two former GOP lawmakers are battling to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Rush Holt, who won in an upset last fall.
Holt, a plasma physicist, defeated then-Rep. Mike Pappas (R). While Pappas is girding for a rematch, Holt's toughest challenge may come from former representative Dick Zimmer, who represented the district before he ran unsuccessfully for Senate against Robert G. Torricelli (D).
Zimmer, who dusted off his old contributor list and got his wife to issue a plea to donors, has $401,000 in cash on hand. Holt, who faced his own primary battle last election, has found incumbency an asset this year, accumulating nearly $470,000 in cash. "A lot of people were hesitant to give to me last year," he said. "Even if they wanted me in Congress, they didn't know whether I was a good investment."
Among the open seats, the biggest-ticket race by far is in Michigan, where two state senators, Democrat Dianne Byrum and Republican Michael Rogers, are battling to replace Democrat Deborah Ann Stabenow, who is running for the Senate. "I just wanted to show that I was a serious candidate . . . and send a message back to Washington that I'm for real," Rogers said.
Republicans helped take care of their own though House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's Retain Our Majority Program (ROMP), in which the Texas Republican instructed members of his whip organization and outside lobbyists to steer money to 10 vulnerable Republicans. The entire operation raised $1.3 million in a matter of months, allowing each of the targeted members to far outpace their previous fund-raising performance.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Patrick Kennedy (R.I.) arranged for small groups of freshmen to meet for lunch early this year with political action committee officials. Kennedy said the freshmen have formed a "buddy system" where they regularly troop over to the DCCC to make telephone calls. "It made a big difference," he said. "It built up a level of consciousness, that they are all hanging together."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company