PAC election money wasn't all for nought

Some of the richest special-interest groups dumped millions of dollars into losing congressional campaigns this year. Political action committees (PACs) of business and the New Right spent record amounts only to see many of their friends lose and their foes elected.

But even as these groups saw their influence shrink, other special interests are expanding their power on Capitol Hill.

Some of the biggest winners this fall among the 3,000-plus PACs are labor PACs. Labor-endorsed candidates won overwhelmingly in the House; more than half won in Senate and gubernatorial races.

Labor unions ''can count on'' most of the new crop of Democrats to vote their way on economic and labor issues, says Bernard Albert, spokesman for the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE), one of the oldest PACs. Moreover, he says, the loss of 26 GOP seats might have ''shaken'' some of the survivors toward moderation.

Calling the election a ''beginning of a rollback of the extreme right wing,'' Mr. Albert says he is already looking forward to 1984, when several senators from the right will be up for reelection.

For now, the labor group can savor success after a poor showing two years ago. Among the victories: a new liberal senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg (D), and the saving of one of their best and most powerful friends in the House, Phillip Burton (D) of California, who appeared to be in big trouble in his newly drawn district.

Labor PACs, whose win record overall is 64 percent this year, spent an estimated $17 million for the campaign. But the biggest labor contribution was probably a massive get-out-the-vote drive. Voter turnout, especially among Democrats, was reported to be higher than normal.

If labor does well, business PACs can expect to do poorly. The US Chamber of Commerce won only 45 percent of races it participated in, a dismal record compared with 70 percent for 1980 and 60 percent in 1978. Most of the business group's preferred candidates were Republicans.

Even with the defeats, the business group chalked up some victories: They helped John R. Kasich of Ohio become the only Republican challenger to unseat a Democratic incumbent (Bob Shamansky, a one-term member). They also added a new friend to the Senate, Paul S. Trible Jr. (R) of Virginia.

If the loss of 26 Republican seats in the House seemed big, it could have been much bigger without business PAC money, says Mr. Newhouse, pointing to the many close races. ''It was money that kept them in the ball game.''

In the ''pro-choice'' vs. ''pro-life'' battle over abortion, the choice groups won this round. After watching some of their top Senate leaders defeated two years ago, the pro-choice groups emerged as a more sophisticated, far better organized force. Both sides agree that choice forces picked up some 20 House votes.

But even more important to the pro-choice groups, they showed that a member can take a stand for choice without fear of being unseated. Some candidates found a stand for abortion rights won supporters.

''It becomes clear that there is a chunk of progressive voters who won't be with you if you're not right on that one issue,'' says Nanette Falkenberg, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League. Her PAC reports 71 percent of the candidates it sponsored won.

Abortion foes, who had been gaining friends in Congress, are disappointed at the new crop of legislators.

''We did all right in the Senate,'' says Peter Gemma, director of Pro-Life PAC, a leading anti-abortion group. But he sees a gain of only one vote, that of Chic Hecht (R) of Nevada, who replaces a wavering Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D). In the House, his group lost seats, although Mr. Gemma maintains that abortion foes still have the majority there.

In the electoral shoot-out over gun ownership, gun control advocates appear to have made the most gains. The newcomer, Handgun Control Inc., saw nearly all its allies win reelection. It backed 17 challengers who won House seats.

The National Rifle Association's PAC, meanwhile, gave generously to incumbents, some of whom were carried out with the Democratic tide. But two of its most powerful friends, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia, will return.

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