WASHINGTON -- Money isn't talking very loudly this election year.
From coast to coast, rich candidates have squandered a fortune on failed campaigns, and the political calendar still has five months to go. In Tuesday's California primary, three millionaire candidates went belly-up after spending a combined $65 million of their own money.
"Being the wealthy outsider isn't the silver bullet it seemed to be earlier this year," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of an independent political newsletter. "This is a year in which insiders are doing better than outsiders and when money has been devalued as a political weapon."
Of the 10 Senate and House candidates who put the most money into their own campaigns this year, only three managed to survive the primary season, according to the latest Federal Election Commission statistics.
In Kentucky last week, cable TV tycoon Charles Owen faded to black after channeling $5 million into his Senate primary campaign, a record for the state. Instead, Democrats chose as their nominee Scotty Baesler, a congressman whose political career began a quarter-century ago.
Financier Al Checchi of Beverly Hills wasn't the only one putting up eye-popping numbers in a losing campaign Tuesday. Checchi set a national spending record for a nonpresidential race -- $40 million, or about $60 per vote -- in losing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a fixture in Sacramento, the state capital, since the 1970s.
On the same day, wealthy attorney Carl Mayer of Princeton, N.J., was trounced in New Jersey's 12th congressional district by the candidate favored by the local Democratic organization. Mayer's million investment in his losing bid worked out to an uneconomical $160 per vote.
"Putting a lot of money into a campaign is a guarantee that everyone will know who you are," said Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog organization that tracks campaign spending. "It is not a guarantee you will win."
The specter of defeat hasn't deterred more millionaires from trying to buy their way into office, though.
In 1996, 143 candidates put $100,000 or more of their own money into their House and Senate campaigns. Through the first three months of this year, the total is 42 candidates -- only three of them incumbents -- and climbing. Those figures don't include wealthy candidates in state races, such as millionaire businessman Ray Schoenke, a long-shot Democratic gubernatorial hopeful in Maryland.
Many of the new breed of rich candidates lack a record of public service that other, well-to-do politicians going back to John F. Kennedy or even Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to develop before aiming for high office.
"These are people who are running from out of the blue," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "It's more transparently about their ambition. Politics comes across as their plaything, and voters resent that."
But there's more to the trend than a bunch of swollen egos and oversized bank accounts. For several reasons, the two major parties are increasingly going out of their way to recruit deep-pocketed candidates.
First, the $1,000 maximum for individual contributions in federal campaigns (unchanged since the mid-1970s) does not apply to money that candidates give or lend to their own campaigns, which is unlimited. Second, candidates who finance their own campaigns free up scarce party resources for other races.
Third, and perhaps most important, the candidate who spends the most money wins the overwhelming majority of elections.
In California, two proven vote-getters, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Rep. Leon E. Panetta, decided not to run for governor out of fear that they would be overmatched by Checchi's money -- and what it could buy in TV commercials. Rep. Jane Harman did enter and was sorry she did. The damage that $6 million Checchi spent in ads attacking her could not be undone, despite the $12 million in family money that Harman put into her campaign.
But wealthy outsiders face problems of their own. Little-known to the public, they lack the reservoir of goodwill that established politicians build up and can easily find themselves on shaky ground with the voters.
In California's Senate contest, the most expensive Senate race in the country this year, Republican businessman Darrell Issa spent more than $12 million of the money he earned selling car alarms.
But he was narrowly defeated after a series of last-minute news reports that forced him to deny that he had stolen a car, brought a gun to work to threaten an employee or burned down a manufacturing plant he once owned in Cleveland.
The winner, state Treasurer Matt Fong, began as the best-known candidate in the field and overcame a 4-to-1 spending disadvantage. He contended that self-financed candidates were doomed to failure in the nation's most populous state.
"Since 1964, we've had 14 millionaires run for governor or U.S. senator, and none of them has won," said Fong, son of well-known former Secretary of State March Fong Eu. "People don't know them. They don't have a track record here in California."
One factor working against wealthy outsiders is the fact that primary elections typically draw fewer voters, mainly the most dedicated partisans from each party and the most likely to respond to candidates who represent the status quo. Less than fTC 40 percent of California's 14.6 million registered voters turned out Tuesday.
But this year, the most important factor may have been the public's contented mood.
"Californians are feeling very good about things in their state, and they're not about to take chances and elect outsiders," said Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. "I really think this had more to do with the message than the money."
The same may be true in other states as well.
In contrast to earlier elections in the '90s, "people are less in the market for a white knight today than they were," said Democratic pollster Garin, an adviser to Harman's campaign in California. "Times are better, and people see government doing a little bit more. Two years or four years ago, there was a bias in favor of outsiders."
Exit polling in California confirmed that primary voters, at least, have respect for career politicians now. What voters in the governor's race liked most about Davis, in choosing him over his two wealthy rivals, was experience in government.
But even though big money didn't triumph, the campaign system still needs fixing, political reformers said.
"I don't think we've learned much new about money in politics this year, except that the arms race continues, and it's ratcheting ever more out of control," said Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a nonpartisan group financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He noted that the "mere" $9 million that Davis raised for his campaign also broke the previous record for a statewide primary.
Pub Date: 6/04/98