Campaign spending headed for $3 billion; Federal candidates benefit from booming economy, earlier primary schedule


WASHINGTON -- If the phenomenal pace of political fund raising continues, candidates for federal office will spend about $3 billion in the 2000 campaigns, an increase of about $800 million from four years earlier, according to projections based on Federal Election Commission data.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who has raised an unprecedented $56 million in seven months, is hardly alone in reaping the benefits of this cash-flush political season. This year's fund-raising totals for House and Senate incumbents and the national political parties have shattered records, exceeding the most optimistic projections of chief fund-raisers and political operatives.

By November 2000, the congressional races could cost $1 billion, experts estimate.

Fund raising for the congressional elections is being bolstered by the intense fight for control of the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a six-seat majority. In the first six months of this year, House incumbents raised $77.9 million, which is 47 percent more than they raised in the first half of 1997 and 88 percent more than they raised in the first half of 1995, according to FEC statistics.

Soft-money donations, the unlimited contributions to the parties for party-building activities, have increased 55 percent in the first half of this year, compared with the same period in 1997. Soft-money contributions are 75 percent higher this year than they were in the first half of 1995.

Experts project that at least $525 million in soft money is likely to be contributed to the six major national political party committees by November 2000. That would be more than double the $262 million in soft money that was contributed in 1996.

As the Senate prepares to debate later this month the merits of a sweeping campaign finance bill that would ban soft money, several campaign finance experts helped project the total that would be raised by candidates and the national parties for the 2000 federal elections.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a public policy organization here, studied the pace of fund raising in the first six months of this year and compared it with the same periods in the past three election cycles.

Wertheimer estimated that the 2000 elections would cost nearly $3 billion, which he called "a conservative estimate." But he and others said the figure could very likely exceed $3 billion, especially if campaign fund raising continues at its torrid pace.

"These are extraordinary numbers," said Wertheimer, who is an outspoken advocate of overhauling campaign finance laws.

"We're ending this century with oceans of political influence money flooding our democracy and drowning out the voices of average citizens," said Wertheimer, who has accurately projected costs of campaigns for 20 years. "The historic idea we have contributed to the world, democratic self-government, is at risk here in our own country because of the corrupt campaign finance practices that pervade Washington.

"Fund raising in the first six months this year has been extremely intensive," Wertheimer said. "But that doesn't mean this pace will sustain itself for two years."

Robert Steurer, an aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is the Senate's most ardent opponent of limits on campaign contributions, did not dispute the $3 billion estimate, but he added that the costs of campaigns had increased markedly.

Fund-raisers and campaign finance experts offer several explanations for the windfall this year.

Fund-raisers attribute much of their success to the booming economy, saying the nation's prosperity makes it easier for more people to write checks of $1,000, the maximum an individual can give to one candidate.

"People feel flush," said Herbert E. Alexander, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Southern California who has written extensively on campaign finance trends.

Another possible explanation for the pace is the early presidential primary schedule, in which most of the major primaries will be over by late March. The earlier schedule has added to the perception among fund-raisers that they have less time to raise money.

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