The Republican Party and such allies as the pharmaceutical industry and the National Rifle Association outspent and outmaneuvered their Democratic opposition in Tuesday's elections, crushing bids to create a pro-Democratic debate on such issues as Social Security, prescription drugs and the economy.
Republican committees held a huge advantage over their Democratic counterparts going into the election -- $183.7 million, or the difference between the GOP's $527.4 million and the Democrats' $343.7 million -- and they targeted their cash precisely to protect vulnerable incumbents, probe for weak opponents and pour money into competitive races.
The Republicans' cash lead this year is seen as a precursor to an even greater advantage in 2004: Starting yesterday, the parties were legally banned from raising and spending "soft money" contributions -- large donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals -- on which the Democrats have depended far more than the GOP.
In addition, with the Republicans controlling the White House and both branches of Congress, they will have an advantage in raising smaller, still legal contributions known as "hard money." It is a fact of political life that sources of special-interest cash -- business and trade associations, political action committees, lobbyists and others -- give far more to the party in power.
Sources said the National Republican Congressional Committee yesterday transferred an estimated $1 million in unused soft money to the Leadership Forum, an independent soft money committee run by Republican lobbyists Bill Paxon and Susan Hirschmann.
Money does not guarantee victory -- many well-financed candidates were defeated on Tuesday, including a number who raised more than their opponents. But party money has come to serve a key role, paying for polling and other studies to identify weaknesses and strengths on both sides and supporting both challengers and candidates for open seats, who often have trouble raising money on their own.
In Florida, for example, spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee boosted the successful challenge of Ginny Brown-Waite (R) to Rep. Karen L. Thurman (D). Without party backing, Brown-Waite would have been outspent 2 to 1, $1.3 million to $694,519. As it was, she could match Thurman almost dollar for dollar.
"We put a lot of money into that race, and so did a lot of our allied groups," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the NRCC. "We controlled the air on that one," meaning they dominated the television ad war. The same pattern of equalizing spending prevailed in a Minnesota House race, where challenger John Kline (R) defeated Rep. Bill Luther (D). Without party support, Kline would have been outspent by Luther by nearly 2 to 1, $2 million to $1.1 million.
In House races overall, an analysis by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed that it was outspent on television buys by $12 million, or $50 million to $38 million.
A number of strategists for both parties credited a last-minute television buy by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in halting, and then reversing, a trend in the polls that briefly suggested New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) was on her way to defeating Rep. John E. Sununu (R) in the fight for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Robert C. Smith (R).
Independent groups spent far less than the parties, but Democrats privately acknowledged that the $12 million-plus spent by the United Seniors Association, the biggest spender in House races, gave crucial help to the GOP. The group, which is partially financed by the pharmaceutical industry, ran television and radio ads intended to insulate Republican House members from Democrats trying to make a major issue out of prescription drug prices.
The NRA invested more in get-out-the-vote activities than in television, almost all of it on behalf of Republican candidates. Yesterday, the gun-rights group said it had helped elect an absolute House majority in support of NRA positions: The number of representatives with an NRA rating of "A" will grow from 217 in the 107th Congress to 228 in the 108th.
Officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who had hoped the midterm election would favor the party out of power, said they recognized in mid-October that "the wind was blowing in our face" and switched spending strategies to protect Democratic incumbents they saw as vulnerable.
This strategy, the officials contended, prevented larger losses, especially in the cases of Reps. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), Chet Edwards (D-Tex.), Mike Ross (D-Ark.), Joseph M. Hoeffel III (D-Pa.), Ken Lucas (D-Ky.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah), all of whom ended up winning tight contests.
However, patterns of campaign contributions to the parties will change radically now that the McCain-Feingold finance law has taken effect. It has banned all donations from unions and corporations and limited individuals to $25,000 a year to a national party committee. The law will end the huge donations -- $50,000 to $1 million or more -- to the parties from unions, tobacco companies, and a host of other interests.
As the ban on soft money takes effect, the Democrats face devastating consequences: Of the $343.7 million its three national party committees raised, 63 percent, or $216.3 million, was in soft money and 37 percent, or $127.4 million, was in hard money. By contrast, the GOP not only raised far more money through Oct. 16 -- $527.4 million -- but it raised 127 percent more hard money, or $289 million.
Largely because of soft money, the Democrats this year held the GOP advantage to a 5-3 ratio. If the two parties had been limited to hard money this year, as they will be in 2004, the ratio would have been 2.3 to 1 in favor of the Republicans.