BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When word began to circulate in the political community that there might be an upset in the making in the Alabama Democratic Senate primary next Tuesday, there were inevitable comparisons between the challenging candidate Chris McNair and two earlier winners of upsets, Carol Mosely Braun and Lynn Yeakel.
But the analogies don't hold water for one reason: campaign money. McNair, a 66-year-old black Jefferson County commissioner here, doesn't have any to speak of (he has less than $50,000). His target, Sen. Richard Shelby, has raised almost $3 million and had most of it still on hand entering the final two weeks of the campaign.
Obviously, this means McNair hasn't been able to conduct the kind of television advertising campaign to give his candidacy visibility. Money and the TV commercials it buys have become credentials that tell voters and too much of the news media that a candidate is "serious."
The contrast is clear with Yeakel, who won an upset over Lt. Gov. Mark Singel in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania last month to choose an opponent for the incumbent Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter. Yeakel spent $200,000 of her own money for commercials that put her on the map, raised her support in opinion polls and made her "serious" enough so that she was able to raise another $600,000.
Although Singel had more money to spend, Yeakel had enough to convey her message that she was the candidate of change running against the political establishment.
The Illinois case was somewhat different, but again money was the difference. Braun, a black woman official in Cook County, wasn't well enough financed herself to compete with incumbent Sen. Alan Dixon on the television screens. But a third candidate, lawyer-businessman Al Hofeld, spent more than $2 million of his own money attacking Dixon. The result was that Dixon was softened up and Braun, benefiting from her black base in Chicago, slipped by both of her rivals.
There were, of course, other factors in all these campaigns. Lynn Yeakel exploited both the weakness of Singel and the angry reaction against Specter because of his prosecutorial role toward Anita Hill in the confirmation hearings on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She profited from a gender gap of more than 10 percent extra support from women voters.
Dixon also was vulnerable on his vote for Clarence Thomas and even more so from his image as a quintessentially old-fashioned representative of the political establishment. This is a bad year for such an image, particularly against a candidate with a built-in base comparable to that for Carol Mosely Braun.
But in both cases, money was the crystallizing agent in telling the voters that these were real contests. As Yeakel's standing in the polls, driven by commercials, rose steadily, the press in Pennsylvania began to treat the challenge to Singel as suddenly a serious contest. Yeakel, a social activist with no political experience, now could hold a news conference and rely on those important local television news programs to give her full attention.
The McNair-Shelby case is different in some respects. Shelby has never been seen as particularly vulnerable because of his vote for Clarence Thomas, although it has caused some liberal women here to back McNair. Nor has Shelby ignored his constituents or committed some political gaffes that would make him an easy target for anyone.
And McNair was never considered a rising star of the black political leadership. He is a popular official with a history of independence in his thinking and voting but, perhaps because of his penchant for going his own way, never the favorite of other black political leaders.
But the simple fact of McNair's race should be enough to make him a potentially serious player in any Democratic primary here. Blacks may cast 40 percent or more of the vote, which means McNair could be competitive with less than 30 percent of the white vote. But the first imperative for a challenger like McNair is to raise the visibility of the campaign, and that takes money he didn't have.
Money isn't everything in American politics. But it is the first credential for a "serious" candidate.