Big Money's Last Hurrah?

campaign finance reform
In her latest commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at the reform-free 2002 U.S. Senate campaigns.

With campaign finance legislation on a fast track, the 2002 elections could be the last federal elections under the old rules. A provision to have the new law go into effect 30 days after passage was struck in a last-minute deal in the House and replaced by a stipulation that says it would take effect on November 6, 2002. And, of course, by then Mitch McConnell and others may have tied the law up in the Supreme Court with a challenge saying it's a violation of First Amendment free-speech guarantees.

But whatever happens in the future, it's clear that this year's campaigns will not be effected by the new legislation. I asked one Democratic consultant if he thought the climate in the country that propelled passage of Shays-Meehan would make parties and candidates dial back their spending in 2002. He laughed. "It wouldn't do to end the year with any soft money in the bank, now would it?" In fact, he went on to say, "with the Senate controlled by the Democrats by only one vote, virtually every competitive Senate race will be a pitched battle." And big money for TV ads is the best way these consultants know to fight.

There are 34 Senate seats up in 2002 and 18 of them are in that competitive pitched-battle status. According to Congressional analyst Charlie Cook and operatives from both parties, the 18 are: Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Colorado Iowa, Montana, Louisiana, Georgia, New Jersey, Maine, Oklahoma, Alabama and Oregon. Tennessee could be added to the list if Sen. Fred Thompson changes his mind and decides not to run again after all.

The hottest races include Minnesota, South Dakota and Missouri, where Democratic incumbents Paul Wellstone, Tim Johnson and Jean Carnahan face strong GOP challengers recruited by the White House; and New Hampshire, Arkansas and Colorado, where Republican incumbents Bob Smith, Tim Hutchinson and Gordon Allard face tough Democratic opponents who can and will raise serious money. Republicans also have to protect three open seats – North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas – where longtime incumbents Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Phil Gramm are retiring.

Because of September 11, many of these candidates started raising money a little late, but they are in fund-raising high gear right now. The national parties have started throwing huge amounts into these races and have just completed a volley of paid advertising in five states. The National Republican Senatorial Committee kicked off the ads on February 8, and also signaled that President Bush was about to get into the fray – big time. The ads – which ran in Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa and Montana – attacked Democratic incumbents for being prtisan on the stimulus package while the president was calling for bipartisanship.

The Democrats countered in an interesting way. In three of the states they made it clear how helpful these Democrats had been to the president. In Montana, Sen. Max Baucus' campaign ran a classic testimonial ad with Mr. Bush giving credit to Baucus for the passage of the tax-relief bill. In Iowa and Minnesota, the Democrats were a bit more, well, Democratic, invoking populist themes and the "E" (Enron) word.

I asked a number of political advisors what, if anything, these early ads tell us about the kind of campaigns and issues we're likely to see this year.

  • President Bush: He is golden right now and Republicans will use him to the hilt. He is helping them raise money (promising at least 40 fund-raisers) and will be seen in TV ads and out on the hustings. Whether Democrats will continue to cozy up to him depends on the state, and, of course, the president's poll numbers. Democratic consultant Anita Dunn says this reminds her of 1984, when Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin used Ronald Reagan in his ads. In other states, Democrats say they will feel free to attack Republicans but probably not Mr. Bush by name. However, despite Mr. Bush's popularity, Democrats say that voters don't want to give him complete carte blanche. They're lining up a number of issues from arsenic in water to the alternative minimum tax where Democrats allegedly "held Republican excesses in check."
  • Enron: Democratic pollster Jeff Garin says the Enron scandal is "more powerful for campaigns than September 11 because it cuts politically." Democrats see it as a metaphor for Republicans' ties to big, uncaring corporations and they believe Democratic candidates can make hay out of their concern for the "little guy and gal" who got screwed by Enron and other big companies. In North Carolina, an ad attacking Elizabeth Dole for attending an Enron fund-raiser has registered a 52 percent recall level with voters. But GOP pollster Linda DiVall isn't so sure Enron will hurt Republicans. Other companies, such as Global Crossing, gave most of their money to Democrats and there are enough cases like that to "muddy the waters," she says. And Enron can be used against Democrats as well. In Texas, Republican Senate candidate John Cornyn has used it in an ad against Democrat Ken Bentsen, a big beneficiary of Enron's largesse.
  • The War: This war on terrorism is already starting to fade from people's consciousness – unless there's a new development. Pollster Garin says that in recent focus groups Enron is the issue that's on people's minds, and which they know about in minute detail – the players, what went wrong and how the employees got hurt. While Republicans have to be careful about "using the war" as a political issue (Bush adviser Karl Rove got slammed for even raising it publicly at an RNC meeting in January), it has boosted the president's poll ratings ad helped Republicans level the playing field in this phase of their campaigns. DiVall says it has also softened campaign rhetoric, at least for now. "Voters still aren't ready for slash and burn campaigns," she said.
  • Issues: Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald says that this year is starting to feel like 1992, when the Gulf War was over and people started to worry about the economic downturn, layoffs and, once again, health care. "Health care is back in a big, big way," she said. However, Republican DiVall says that unlike 1992, the GOP realizes that it cannot ignore these social issues and will have its own alternatives on prescription drugs, HMO reform, the environment and education. And, of course, taxes. Democrats say they expect another vote on tax cuts in the fall to press the Republican advantage on this issue.

    All the consultants point out that many of the races are "quirky" and most will turn on very individual circumstances rather than big national issues. In New Hampshire, for example, one strategist said the race is about two guys who want to be in the Senate and a governor who wants to talk about her record. In Arkansas, it's about a "family values" candidate who left his wife and married a staffer, versus the son of a former senator who's done very little and is scrambling to get a resume. In South Dakota, the campaign's about whether voters want Tom Daschle's little brother or George Bush's rubber stamp.

    So despite all the hoopla, don't expect to see reform any time soon in campaigns for the U.S. Senate. The big money and negative ads will be out in force for a last hurrah.

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    A veteran of the Washington scene, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch provides an inside look at the issues and personalities shaping the political dialogue in the nation's capital and around the country.

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