Today's election ends months of work for hundreds of candidates and their political and fund-raising staffs around the country. It's just another day in a longer-running race for U.S. senators who don't face the voters until 1992 -- and for the special-interest groups that finance their campaigns.

Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), who has $230,000 in the bank and no announced opponent, knows it's never too early to raise money. The cable trade association sponsored a Washington reception for Wirth last April that raised more than $80,000.

That event is instructive in what it says about the current campaign finance system. It illustrates not only the never-ending fund-raising cycle but also the symbiotic relationship between one industry and one member of Congress.

Wirth is a critic of the current system and at the same time a beneficiary of it. During the debate on campaign reform last July, he railed against the never-ending quest for special-interest money from PACs and wealthy individuals -- "Tommy Tycoons" was his term. He said the money chase was crowding out the average citizen, that the special interests have "influence far beyond their legitimate stakes in this society."

Cable's April 23 reception for Wirth at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel shows how a special-interest group can legally channel large sums to a favored lawmaker. Federal law limits individuals to $1,000 donations for each election and PACs to $5,000. Clustering the giving around one event magnifies their impact.

James P. Mooney, president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), which put the Wirth event together, declined to be interviewed. Association spokeswoman Elise Adde said, "We participated in a fund-raiser for Sen. Wirth this spring attended by a number of executives in our industry. We don't consider it an unusual event."

Wirth, who has long been a champion of cable television interests, was quite willing to talk about the close relationship between himself and the industry. He noted that several major cable companies are headquartered in Colorado, and that while a member of the House, he was a major player in writing the 1984 bill that deregulated the industry.

Cable reaches 60 percent of American homes and its growth has been accompanied by growing complaints about price gouging and poor service. A bill to partially reregulate the industry passed the House unanimously, but Wirth took the Senate floor in late September to block a similar bill from coming to a vote. "You only need one vote, and I voted it," he said in an interview.

Wirth said he wasn't bothered by provisions giving the Federal Communications Commission power to review charges for basic cable services. His main objection was language that would change "exclusive" programming rights and make them available to competitors.

Wirth said the industry's fund-raising help had no effect on his decision to block the reregulation bill. He said he warned cable executives about harmful provisions in the bill, rather than them coming to him for help. "I could care less if they raised $100,000 or $10,000 or $1 million. As it relates to this {his floor action}, I'm going to do this anyway. I'm calling them up and telling them what to do.

"If it has all of this great impact, they would be in here asking me to do X, Y and Z. And we're calling them up -- it's the other way around -- and saying, 'I think you better do the following kinds of things.' It is exactly the reverse of what you would assume, them saying, 'We had this big fund-raiser for you and therefore we expect the following behavior . . . . ' "

Indeed, cable television executives and political action committees are longtime financial supporters of Wirth. They helped finance his successful Senate race in 1986. Besides direct donations, for instance, Denver-based industry giant Telecommunications Inc. (TCI) donated $25,000 that year to the state Democratic Party, Denver's Rocky Mountain News reported.

The cable-sponsored Ritz-Carlton reception "is no mystery," Wirth said. "I have been a voice for the cable industry and I have supported the cable industry and the cable industry has supported me for 16 years," since his first House race in 1974. "They want me to get reelected . . . . I would think the cable industry would be interested in having somebody who knows a great deal about the cable industry in the United States Senate.

"I would assume that my constituents who like the job that I do want me to get reelected. That's not rocket science. That's a pretty straightforward proposition."

Wirth didn't recall exactly who initiated the idea for the Ritz-Carlton event. "I would suppose my office talked to the cable industry office . . . . This is a long relationship. The conversation could well have been, 'You're going to have a very tough campaign going on in 1992. We've got to get going on all that sort of thing.' And 'You guys are going to be helping?' 'Yea, we're going to be helping. What can we do?' It wasn't someone sitting down who I never met before." An aide said later that Colorado cable executives talked with Wirth's office about sponsoring the event.

The senator said he supposed the event raised "around 100,000 bucks." A review of campaign reports shows that eight cable PACs donated $40,000 to Wirth around the time of the event, led by $10,000 from TCI and $5,000 each from NCTA, Warner Communications, Jones International of Englewood, Colo., and equipment makers General Instruments and ITEL Corp. At least 40 individuals connected to the industry donated another $42,500 in the same period.

Amos Hostetter, chairman of Continental Cablevision Inc. of Boston, and his wife Barbara contributed the maximum $4,000 a couple can give in early April. Hostetter said in an interview he has been a longtime friend and supporter of Wirth's and his donations weren't tied to the Ritz-Carlton event.

In addition to the direct contributions from the event, the NCTA provided additional help to Wirth by paying the expenses for the reception. It did so using an obscure section of federal election law that says a group can make "partisan communications," including a request for donations, at a membership meeting.

There was no NCTA meeting in Washington April 23, but more than 20 members of the trade association were arriving for the board meeting the next day of C-SPAN, the cable network that provides live coverage of House and Senate floor action. C-SPAN spokeswoman Rayne Pollack said the non-profit network had nothing to do with sponsoring the fundraiser.

William Oldaker, an attorney who represents NCTA, said the gathering of association members qualified for the exemption.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.