Democrats' money: far behind but growing fast

The Republican Party remains the financial Goliath of 1980s politics. But its financial strength has weakened since the 1985-86 election cycle. Meanwhile, Democratic Party coffers show marked growth in the past two years. According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records, Republican contributions to the party's various national finance committees are down from $127.2 million between Jan. 1, 1985 and March 31, 1986 to $97.2 million during the comparable period in the current cycle. Democratic receipts have increased from $23.6 million during the first 15 months of the last cycle to $29.2 million in this cyclet.

Herbert E. Alexander, a campaign-finance expert, says that Republicans attribute the relatively slow rate of donations to having already saturated their primary sources. He acknowledges that this is partly responsible for the ``pattern of falloff with all of the New Right organizations that did very well before 1984,'' but Mr. Alexander offers another possible explanation, as well.

Many conservative Republicans have given up on the idea of regaining control of the House of Representatives, says Alexander, who wrote ``Financing the 1984 Election,'' considered the ``bible'' of campaign finance. He says the goal - now considered out of reach by some Republicans - was key to the pre-1984 bulge in the Republican Party pocketbook.

He explains the Democrats' new prosperity this way:

``Now that they have been out of the White House for a while, they've accumulated grievances they can use to make appeals for money. Eight years is a long time. They can say, `The Republicans haven't done this, haven't done that.'''

Even so, Alexander doubts that the Democrats will ever catch up to the Republicans in fund raising.

The Democrats' economic shoestring is reflected in the prevalence of old debts. The Democratic National Committee still owes singer Diana Ross $37,000 for performing during the last election. The DNC also has a phone bill for $71,000 lingering from the Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy campaigns.

Nonetheless, FEC records show a pattern of increase for Democrats and stagnation for Republicans in the donation figures for the parties' senatorial and congressional campaign committees.

For example, receipts by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) fell from $51.9 million in 1985-86 to $34.2 million during the current two-year election cycle.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) increased receipts from $6 million in 1985-85 to $8.5 million this cycle.

The same trends are present in the parties' contributions to candidates.

``We feel like this cycle is a success story,'' says Anita Dunn of the DSCC. ``What we found in 1986 was quality candidates with good messages, and enough money to get those messages out.''

Party contributions to Democratic senatorial candidates this time around already total $361,000, as opposed to $243,727 in 1986.

``We've already increased over the last time,'' Ms. Dunn says. ``The goal is to spend the maximum in all the races. We think we're on track for that.''

Contributions by the NRSC to GOP candidates totaled $437,081 in 1985-86. Contributions to candidates from the National Republican Congressional Committee were $457,908.

``It's too early to start talking specifics about funding to candidates,'' says Steven Lotterer, speaking for the NRCC. ``We like to move quietly, don't like to tip the Democrats off. Otherwise some [Democratic] incumbent will cry, `I've been targeted.'''

In House races, party finance committees can give direct contributions of $5,000 during each phase of an election - the primary, any run-off, and the general election.

Senate races have a direct contribution ceiling from the national committees of $17,500 during the year of the election.

Direct-contribution limits help keep the playing field level. But where deep pockets provide a competitive edge is in ``coordinated expenditures.''

These expenditures are made by the parties' finance committees on behalf of candidates - in addition to contributions given directly to the candidates. They are allowed only in the general election and don't count as contributions to or expenditures by the candidates.

Party committees may work with candidates' campaigns to determine how the money is spent. The campaigns don't receive the funds directly but can give the committee a ``shopping list'' that includes polls, newsletters, radio and television ads.

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