Hey, Big Spender, Wanna Seat?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Who are to be the electors of the federal Representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names more than the humble sons of unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States."

James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitution, writing in Federalist No. 57 The Founders anticipated that modern politicians might not agree with them about the nature of elections; the main purpose of the Constitution was to limit the power of federal politicians and to ensure their accountability to the people.

Elections were intended as a political counterpoint to economic power, a lanyard for people to yank their legislators back from entanglements with the lobbyists and money men of the capital.

Instead, elections have become a vehicle for wealth and moneyed interests. This year, the money mattered more than ever before. The difference is that this year, the fat cats bought more elections for Republicans than for Democrats. A clever Republican plan to shift cash where it would do the most good was a key to the GOP takeover of the House.

No Maryland seats changed party hands, and it appears that the big spender won every congressional race here.

Fund-raising was close in the 2nd Congressional District, where two state representatives went after the seat that opened when Helen Delich Bentley retired to make a bid, which she lost, for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

As of three weeks before the election, Republican winner Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Timonium attorney, had a slight edge over Democrat Gerry L. Brewster. Mr. Ehrlich raised more than $133,000 in the first 19 days of October, including $63,000 from political action committees. This was more than three times the late PAC money raised by Mr. Brewster, whose principal source of money during this period was a $75,000 advance of his own funds.

The money turned out to be close in Maryland's U.S. Senate race, with GOP challenger Bill Brock lending his campaign about $810,000 to come within $200,000 of the $2.4 million campaign chest raised by incumbent Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, the winner.

In every other Maryland congressional race, as in most of the country, the incumbent won by handily outspending the challenger.

The consensus in Washington now is that the GOP's big victory can be attributed to the purest of politics: The electorate, especially white males, voting against the Democratic-controlled old guard in Congress that it blamed for a dysfunctional government and "politics as usual."

But evidence suggests that the Republicans gained power exactly the same way the Democrats have held it: with money, largely from people who have no right to vote in the local elections they finance, because they live in another state.

In the 1970s, Congress enacted campaign finance "reforms" that brought much more money into congressional elections, ensured that far more of it would flow to incumbents than to challengers, and financed a new Washington cottage industry: high-technology electioneering.

Congress created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which critics say is controlled by those it's supposed to oversee to a greater degree than any other regulatory agency in Washington.

As election law has evolved through amendments and decisions by the FEC, the cost of winning a House seat has grown from less than $88,000 in 1976 to more than $556,000 in 1992. Over the same 16 years, the price of a Senate seat has risen more than sixfold. Elections have become financial contests, rather than political ones, as money and the services it buys -- of pollsters, media consultants and direct mail wizards -- have supplanted volunteer canvassers, organizers, and local leaders.

Today, few citizens are asked to volunteer in campaigns except to make or solicit contributions. Baltimore's robust Election Day get-out-the-vote activities are the exception, not the rule.

In the Senate, Republicans now have a 53-47 Senate edge and will have 18 seats up for election in 1996, when Democrats must defend 16 seats. But for a handful of races, U.S. House election results are complete. It appears that final returns will give Republicans 229 seats, with Democrats having 205, and one won by an Independent who usually votes with the Democrats. To regain control of the House in 1996, Democrats would have to gain a net of a dozen seats.

With only 53 percent of the seats in each chamber, passing legislation will require Republicans to show far more unity than Democrats mustered in the last Congress, when they had 60 percent of the House and 56 percent of the Senate. GOP defections of three in the Senate or 12 in the House, if not counterbalanced by Democratic crossovers, will deny Republican victories in floor votes.

The group most likely to find itself more empowered by these elections is Washington lobbyists and election financiers. More than the Republicans, the conservatives, the advocates of "change," or candidates identifying with any set of issues, the winners were the candidates with the most money.

Financial reports covering the final weeks of the election won't be available until mid-December. But based upon reports through three weeks before the election, winners spent more in these elections than ever before in the history of fund-raising disclosures.

In Senate races this year, victory went to the fund-raising leaders 31 of 35 seats. It now appears that only four Senate incumbents, all Democrats, were outspent. Two won and two lost.

Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein of California and Chuck Robb of Virginia won in part by making an issue of fund-raising by their Republican challengers. California Republican Michael Huffington spent more than $25 million of his family fortune, and was depicted as a Texas oil baron trying to buy a Senate seat.

Former Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of Virginia parlayed his overturned conviction for lying to Congress into a direct mail fund-raising juggernaut that raised close to $18 million, but Mr. Robb portrayed Mr. North as a tool of out-of-state extreme conservatives. The only incumbent senators to lose were the other two Democrats who were outspent.

As of Oct. 19, winning challenger Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican congressman, had raised $350,000 more than Democrat Harris Wofford.

Bill Frist, the successful Republican challenger in Tennessee, is a surgeon with a family in the health care business. He advanced at least $2.25 million from his own fortune to bring his campaign total nearly a million dollars ahead of the $4 million raised by three-term Democrat Jim Sasser. Republicans won all nine open Senate seats having the fund-raising lead in seven of them three weeks before the election.

In the House, money has been even more telling. In the 3,045 general elections for U.S. Representative since 1980, the big spender won 91.3 percent. Again, the partisan difference has been negligible. Republicans won 1,235 of those elections and were the big spenders in 1,140, or 91.7 percent of them. Democrats won 1,807 House elections during the same time, outspending their GOP opponents in all but 169, or 90.7 percent of their wins.

House Democratic candidates have been winning by raising more money than Republican candidates. This year, for the first time, Democrats lost most of the bidding wars, and so lost most of the elections.

Based upon disclosures as of Oct. 19, the big fund-raiser won 383, or 88 percent, of this year's House elections. Democrats were apparently the top fund-raisers in 96.1 percent or all but eight of the 205 House races they won, while Republicans had the cash advantage in 80.8 percent, or 185 of the 229 House elections they won.

Using a loophole in the Federal Election Campaign Act, Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, head of the Republican House campaign committee, engineered a brilliant and perfectly legal transfer of millions of dollars from the coffers of GOP candidates who didn't need cash to those who did. He has variously estimated the amount at between $3 million and $5 million, not counting about $5 million in last-minute party contributions.

Here's how it worked:

Under the election law, campaigns are "political committees" and may function as "non-qualified" PACs, giving up to $1,000 to any other committee. Further, they can transfer money to another committee that doesn't need it, which can then give it to a campaign that does. Thus, by persuading safe GOP candidates to share their largess, Mr. Paxon could get the cash ** to campaigns at risk, either directly, or passed through other campaigns. House incumbents almost always outspend their challengers, and almost always win.

As of June 30, only 20 Republican and 13 Democratic challengers had amassed even half as much money as their incumbent foes. By the end of September, the money had begun shifting away from the Democrats. Challengers with half the funds of their foes numbered 38 Republicans and 19 Democrats. As of three weeks before the election, 48 Republican challengers had at least half as much as the Democrats they took on. Only 20 Democrats could make that boast. Only 57 House challengers -- 13 Democrats and 44 Republicans -- had raised a third of a million dollars. That would have suggested that about 19 incumbents would lose -- roughly four Republicans and 15 Democrats.

By diverting money to challengers with a chance and to incumbents in trouble, Mr. Paxon had helped tilt the playing field further. None of the Republican incumbents at risk was defeated, and half of the well-funded Republican challengers won. Twelve more GOP challengers won, despite the fact that -- as of three weeks before the election -- each had raised less than a third of a million dollars and was about out of cash.

No incumbent ran in 52 open seats. In the 283 general elections for open House seats over the past 14 years, the big spender has prevailed more than three-quarters of the time, winning 220 of 283 races.

At the end of June, Republicans led in fund-raising for just 10 of the open seats. By three weeks before the election, Democrats were top fund-raisers in 25 open-seat elections, Republicans in 27. If those relative fund raising margins had held and the results had followed the pattern of the past 14 years, the parties would have roughly split on the open seats, with about 25 to 27 each. But this year, the Republicans took 39 of the open seats, leaving Democrats only 13.

What happened? Either the fund-raising changed just before the election, or the money mattered less than ever before.

Since 1980, the big spender has won an average of 77 percent of the open House seats. There has been little partisan difference: Republicans won 75.7 percent of the races when they had the cash advantage, Democrats 78.2 percent. The partisan difference this year is striking. Democrats won only three of the 27 open races where they were trailing in the money chase, a paltry 11 percent, and half of what could have been expected.

Republicans won 15 of the 25 where they trailed three weeks out -- nine more than expected. This GOP success may be largely attributable to Mr. Paxon again. If Mr. Paxon apportioned $10 million in party funds and diversions from other campaigns to 75 campaigns most in need, that would have boosted those campaigns by a whopping average of $133,000 apiece, about a quarter of the cost of a winning campaign.

Of the 39 Republican winners of open seats, 25 were fund-raising leaders in mid-October, and another seven -- 32 in all -- were within $133,000 of matching their Democratic rivals' campaign chests.

Of the 13 open seats where Democrats won, they were the preliminary fund-raising leaders in 10, and would have remained ahead in nine of them even if their GOP opponents had garnered $133,000 more. Having achieved majority status with money, Republicans may now be expected to balk at passing campaign finance "reforms" that could change the system they have mastered, leaving them vulnerable to the electorate.

Edward Roeder is the editor of Sunshine Press Services Inc. in Washington, D.C.

PRE-ELECTION FUND-RAISING

The fund-raising leader won the Senate race and all eight

Maryland elections for the U.S. House in 1994.

U.S. SENATE

Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Incumbent) ........ $2,390,455 ... Won

William E. Brock III (R-Challenger) .... 2,189,779 ... Lost

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

1st District

Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Incumbent) ......... $133,868 .... Won

Ralph T. Gies, (D-Challenger) .............. 24,685 .... Lost

District

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Open seat) ...... $421,432 .... Won

Gerry L. Brewster, (D-Open seat) .......... 406,489 .... Lost

3rd District

Ben Cardin (D-Incumbent) ................. $430,843 .... Won

Robert R. Tousey, (R-Challenger) .......... $13,086 .... Lost

District

Albert R. Wynn (D-Incumbent) ............. $324,495 ... Won

Michele Dyson (R-Challenger) .............. $96,512 ... Lost

5th District

Steny Hoyer (D-Incumbent) .............. $1,171,268 ... Won

Donald J. Devine (R-Challenger) .......... $323,521 ... Lost

District

Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Incumbent) ......... $315,784 ... Won

Paul D. Muldowney (D-Challenger) ......... $206,777 ... Lost

District

Kweisi Mfume (D-Incumbent) ............... $277,795 ... Won

Kenneth K. Kondner (no report filed) ..... ........ ... Lost

8th District

Connie Morella (R-Incumbent) ............. $313,082 ... Won

Steven Van Grack (D-Challenger) ............ $8,798 ... Lost

SOURCE: Sunshine Press Services computer analysis of campaign finance disclosures through Oct. 19 filed with the Federal Election Commission.

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