National Ads Blitz Local Races

In preview races, TV spots by 'outside agitators' proliferate - and voter turnout leaps.

Kevin Artl sounds exasperated.

He's managing his first congressional campaign - for a US House seat representing suburban Chicago - and all sorts of outsiders are coming in and pushing their own agendas.

There are the anti-abortion groups, and the term-limits groups, and the citizens' rights activists, all agitating to influence the primary election on Tuesday.

"It's just a mess, these outside groups coming in and attacking people," sighs Mr. Artl, campaign manager for state Rep. Judith Biggart (R). "It's kind of eerie to believe that outsiders can essentially hijack a congressional race."

"Outsiders" - generally, Washington-based interest groups - throwing their weight around local political races is nothing new. But this practice is expected to grow exponentially this election year, fueled in part by limitless donations that fall outside campaign-finance regulations. Dozens of new groups have formed in the past year; existing groups are boosting their budgets for issue advocacy.

In a special California congressional election Tuesday, won by Democrat Lois Capps, the cacophony of issue-group ads was the big story. The candidates complained their messages could barely be heard above the din. But was that really true? Can you really have too much free speech?

In Washington, advocates of campaign-finance limits argue that candidates are in danger of becoming "bit players" in their own campaigns, a potential threat to the democratic process. But consider this: Turnout in the Capps race was 45 percent, much higher than average in this day of declining turnouts and rampant voter apathy.

Perhaps, suggests political scientist Eric Smith, all the political talk clogging the airwaves was good for democracy. "These ads annoyed a lot of people, but they also worked - they got participation up," says Professor Smith of the University of California at Santa Barbara. "A lot of the outside money convinced voters that this was a tight race they ought to pay attention to."

As for the ability of Mrs. Capps and her main opponent, Tom Bordonaro (R), to get their own points across, Smith insists they succeeded. In election-day interviews, he says, voters used phrases and arguments taken right from the candidates' own ads.

Ironically, less outside agitation might have helped Mr. Bordonaro squeak out a victory. Low turnout tends to favor the party with the greater activist base, and Republican Bordonaro - favored by religious conservatives for his anti-abortion stand - could have benefited from a sleepier atmosphere.

Tie between ads and turnout

Relatively high turnout in the Capps race also confirms the finding of researchers who see a correlation between higher campaign spending and higher turnout in individual races.

Back in Washington, new issue groups are forming battle plans for the fall races. One new group, the pro-business Americans for Job Security, plans to spend $12 million this year in 15 to 20 markets, and after that to go up to $20 million a year. The group aims to be "proactive" in promoting a pro-business agenda, not just reacting to pro-labor ads, says spokesman Mike Dubke.

New groups are forming across the political spectrum. The liberal American Small Business Alliance, formed as a counter to the conservative National Federation of Independent Businesses, supports the family and medical leave law. Americans for Clean Energy is a business-friendly environmental group.

The advent of such groups could be bad news for the political parties: The funds they're raising might, in earlier times, have been given to the parties as "soft money" contributions used for party-building activities.

"When you put money into party building, it gets diluted. You're not sure if they're going to talk about your issues or somebody else's issues," says Mr. Dubke. Many groups have realized that the best way to affect debate on issues they hold dear is "to go out and talk about them yourself."

Money is the only limit

Some new groups, such as the conservative Campaign for Working Families (CWF), operate as political action committees, which means their donations are regulated and disclosed. But the amount of issue ads and mailings a PAC can make is limited only by its budget. CWF, run by activist Gary Bauer, expects to spend about $1.5 million on issue advocacy this year.

Even though the group's favored candidate in the California race lost, CWF's $200,000 outlay attracted attention to its No. 1 issue: so-called partial-birth abortion. CWF is now active in trying to defeat Ms. Biggart in her Illinois congressional primary next week.

If this is causing Biggart's campaign manager consternation, he can be thankful his district is in the expensive Chicago media market, limiting the CWF to mailings and radio ads. In the Capps-Bordonaro contest in Santa Barbara, Calif., TV time was relatively cheap, and this most influential of media did indeed turn into a ubiquitous megaphone of political speech.

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