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Big Bucks = Election Success

In one of every six congressional races this fall, at least one candidate's campaign cost $1 million or more, federal election records show. Those who spent seven figures won more than three-quarters of the time.

At least 94 House candidates in 76 districts broke the $1 million spending barrier, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports covering Jan. 1, 1997, through this past Nov. 23. That's a 24 percent increase from 1995-96, when 76 candidates reported spending seven figures over the same period.

The new figures are sure to increase when year-end numbers are tallied next month.

Just 10 years ago, only 10 House candidates spent at least $1 million.

"The days of Mom and Pop around the kitchen table running the congressional campaign are over," said Democratic political consultant Peter Fenn.

Those who study political fund-raising say several factors have increased the number of seven-figure House campaigns, including:

  • The rising costs and use of television.

  • Candidates' efforts to match expenditures by outside groups.

  • Incumbent fund-raising, which begins anew as soon as the election ends.

"These folks have computer systems, offices, direct mail operations, event planning not four months out but 24 months out," Fenn explained.

Despite the increase in million-dollar campaigns, overall campaign spending dropped slightly in 1998, the FEC reported Tuesday. Senate and House candidates spent $617.1 million between Jan. 1, 1997, and Nov. 23, 1998, down $9.2 million from 1995-96 levels, when many candidates spent more to counter huge outside advertising campaigns by organized labor and corporate groups.

Big spending, nonetheless, scored a winning record. Seventy-eight percent of those who reported spending $1 million on their campaign ended up winning the race. And all but four of the big spenders got at least 40 percent of the vote.

Two who didn't were California Republicans: Robert Dornan, who polled 39 percent against Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez in a rematch of their 1996 contest; and Randy Hoffman, who received 38 percent against Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman. In Dornan's case, however, much of the money he took in was eaten up by fund-raising expenses.

The biggest House spender was outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who spent $7.2 million between Jan. 1, 1997, and Nov. 23, 1998, much of it to aid his fellow House Republicans. The biggest spending House loser was Democrat Philip Maloof, who spent $5.3 million but lost to Republican Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico's 1st District.

In Kentucky, freshman GOP Rep. Anne Northup spent $1.7 million to beat back a strong challenge from Democratic challenger Chris Gorman. But in Mississippi, GOP nominee C. Delbert Hosemann failed to win an open House seat despite spending $1.5 million to the $446,790 spent by winning Democratic candidate Ronnie hows.

On the Senate side, the biggest spender was Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., who spent $24 million between Jan. 1, 1997, and Nov. 25, 1998, in his unsuccessful re-election bid. D'Amato's spending fell shy of the record $29.9 million California GOP Senate nominee Michael Huffington spent in his unsuccessful campaign against Dianne Feinstein in 1994.

The Democrat who defeated D'Amato, Rep. Charles Schumer, spent $16.3 million, making the New York Senate race the most expensive in the country.

One factor in the increased spending by House candidates is the growth in the number of television and cable stations.

"There are no volunteer armies any more," Republican consultant Jack Cookfair explained. "The most effective way to reach large numbers of voters at a reasonable cost per thousands is television. Because of all the clutter that's out there, you need to have people see your spots so many more times to drive your message."