Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 1998; Page A01
ROCK ISLAND, Ill.In the old days, say four years ago, the House race for western Illinois would have promised a simple, classic matchup between a liberal-leaning Democrat and a free-trading Republican.
But these are not the old days, and the election this year between Rep. Lane Evans (D), an eight-term incumbent, and challenger Mark Baker (R), a personable former TV news anchor, will feature many matchups, fronted by hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing into the district -- but not to the candidates -- from interest groups around the country.
There will be Labor vs. Baker, and Business vs. Evans. There will be environmentalists, abortion rights activists, abortion opponents, veterans, seniors, trade organizations, farm groups and anyone else who sees a reason to pick sides in Illinois District 17.
Evans-Baker is one of perhaps three dozen House races targeted nationwide both by the political parties and a host of different interest groups pushing agendas that may have little or nothing to do with the concerns of district voters.
With campaign finance reform unlikely to pass this year, the outside spending that inundated congressional elections in 1996 is coming back with redoubled force in 1998, turning congressional candidates into chess pieces in a national war among competing special interests.
"There is a concern," Baker said, "that maybe you're not going to control your own campaign."
Much of the spending will be "soft money" for "issue advocacy" television advertising unregulated by federal law. In most cases the candidates themselves will not know who is helping or harming them until they see it. The voters may never know unless they pay close attention to the fine print at the bottom of their TV screen.
"I can't do anything about the special interest groups, except hope it's not lopsided -- that groups on my side will do the same thing for me that Lane's groups will do for him."
But a new law of politics has also begun to emerge: Soft money drives "hard" money. To prepare for the unknown, Evans and Baker are raising as much of their own hard, regulated money as they can: "It's going to be obscene," said Evans. "There's a potential here for each of us to raise and spend $1 million."
The targeting of Illinois 17 began immediately after the 1996 elections. Evans, from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River metropolitan area known as the Quad Cities, beat Baker, from Quincy 145 miles to the south, 52 percent to 47 percent. This was a much narrower margin than the 54 percent to 37 percent reelection trouncing President Clinton handed Republican Robert J. Dole and sent signals that Evans was vulnerable.
"Our view is to put as many Democratic seats in play as possible," National Republican Congressional Committee political director Ed Brookover said. "The more prospects you have, the better off your chances of success."
Baker's last showing transformed him from a "prospect" to a "first-tier" threat. He put himself atop the party's list in January when he raised the six-figure war chest that challengers need before the nationals will take them seriously.
Democrats need a net gain of only 11 seats -- and have less money to spend. "We don't have a lot of margin for error," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Dan Salleck. "We're telling our incumbents to raise money and be competitive. The third-party spending is a constant reminder that they have to run for their lives."
In the face of benign neglect, Evans collected $133,985 by Jan. 1, more than he had ever raised that early. Still, he warned a roomful of activists in a farm town last week, "We might possibly be outspent."
The last time that happened was in 1982, when Evans, a young anti-poverty lawyer and former Marine from Rock Island, parlayed union support and the proceeds from Democratic-run yard sales into a victorious race to succeed longtime Republican incumbent Tom Railsback.
Today, at 46, he has risen to become the ranking minority member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and has led efforts to win compensation for veterans and their children suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. He is the leading House exponent of a worldwide ban on land mines.
Evans is an amiable, boyish shambler who often looks like an unmade bed. He's kept his job by emphasizing constituent service and a solid blue-collar voting record. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gives him one of the highest ratings in the House.
Evans's core support comes from 58,000 union workers in the Quad Cities area -- Rock Island, Moline and East Moline -- which dominate the northern part of the district. In 1996 Evans spent $630,000, of which $220,000 was union political action committee money.
But Baker argues that his opponent is "out of step" with a sprawling district that spreads south to Quincy along the Mississippi through some of the nation's richest farmland.
"Mark's been more receptive," said Randy Parks, president of the 2,000-strong McDonough County Farm Bureau in the middle of Illinois 17. "I see Lane Evans as more into the unions and less concerned with rural areas."
Their money-raising patterns tell something of the candidates' support. In 1996 Baker raised $507,000, about half in PAC money from trade, business and agriculture organizations. When it came to individual contributions below $200, Evans virtually doubled Baker's efforts, $197,000 to $103,000.
Where Evans favors restrictive trade policies, Baker is a free trader. Evans is for abortion rights, while Baker is not. Evans is pro-environment, Baker is pro-farmer. Evans is labor. Baker is a regional director for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Evans is city, Baker is country. Evans is moderate-liberal, Baker is moderate-conservative.
And if Evans is old reliable, Baker, 39, is supposed to be a breath of fresh air who will attempt to use his stage presence and media savvy to overcome Evans's experience.
"Lane has done something for almost everyone in the district," said Knox County Democratic activist Jan Hill, a county chairman from Macomb. "He's been around long enough that if he hasn't helped you, he's helped your uncle, or he's helped your brother."
As a fair fight uncluttered by outsiders, Evans-Baker figures to be a nail-biter, with two excellent candidates offering voters with a clear political choice. But will it be a fair fight?
Baker said he had no idea what issue advocacy was in 1996, and was stunned one Monday morning to wake up and find out that the "Coalition" of business groups that poured $5 million into issue advocacy in 1996 was running TV ads on his behalf: "It was like manna from heaven."
Evans was unpleasantly surprised, and estimates that $160,000 worth of pro-Baker ads flooded the airwaves in the last few days of the campaign. Allen Wiese, general sales manager for KWQC-TV, the Quad Cities' leading news station, confirms that he was bombarded by outside groups thrusting checks at him to get on the air.
"It was beyond our wildest dreams," Wiese said.
This year, it will cost a lot more to play in the game.
But when it comes to third-party spending, Evans is not without champions. Organized labor will provide for its favored candidates -- and Evans has a 100 percent rating on union issues. Labor has a menu of services from TV issue advocacy to rank-and-file foot soldiers ready to organize news conferences, distribute signs, knock on doors and staff telephone banks.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in an interview that the federation, which spent $35 million on elections in 1996, plans to focus on "grass-roots organizing among our members," and will have "issue materials" ready for emergencies. The federation has already budgeted $15 million for 1998 and is likely to spend much more. A significant amount is likely to end up in Illinois 17. AFL-CIO sources emphasized that big labor will not sit idly by if pro-Republican money threatens to bury Evans.
But whatever labor does, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is prepared to match, either by itself or within the "Coalition."
"Lane Evans has one of the worst voting records in Congress on business issues," warned Lonnie Taylor, the chamber's senior vice president for congressional affairs. "This will be a priority race for the U.S. Chamber, and we will jump in whenever it matters most."
Also eyeing Illinois 17 is the Campaign for Working Families, an antiabortion political action committee already credited with tipping the balance in a Republican House primary in California in January. The campaign intends to spend $3 million to $5 million throughout the year.
Evans is a staunch abortion-rights advocate, and "we would clearly like to see him defeated," said campaign co-director Peter Dickinson. But Baker supports most-favored-nation trade status for China, which is opposed by the Campaign, and is not as strong an opponent of abortion "as we would like."
"It becomes a question of priorities," Dickinson said. "If we're looking at a dozen races, and candidates in 10 of them are with us 100 percent, we'd have to take that into account. Mark is good on the issue, but he could be better."
The Sierra Club, which spent $4 million in issue advocacy and grass-roots organizing in 1996, "could go even higher" this year, political director Daniel J. Weiss said, and Evans "is one of our most important seats."
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