Blue jeans, chicken wings, and $26 million

Democrats' mega fund-raiser raises new questions about role of money in politics.

In campaign fund-raising, does it really come down to goat cheese vs. chicken wings?

That's what the Democrats say. Party officials point with disdain to last month's Republican gala, when select donors arrived in black tie and limos for haute cuisine. At yesterday's Democratic fund-raiser for the masses, the dress code was blue jeans and cowboy boots; the menu, barbeque; and the minimum entry fee, a mere $50.

But stylistic differences fade to insignificance when you look at the result. Last night's rally was expected to draw $26 million - the largest single fund-raiser in American political history. It's double what the Democrats raised at their big shindig four years ago, and even beats the record $21.3 million set by the GOP at their April event.

"In terms of fund-raising, the parties are becoming more and more alike," says Anthony Corrado, a campaign expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Despite loud calls for campaign-finance reform during the presidential primary race - fueled in part by revelations about the Democrats' illegal fund-raising practices during the 1996 campaign - both parties seem to be having more success than ever in filling their war chests.

Not too many election cycles ago, six-figure contributions were a rarity. Now, there are donor clubs for those who give or raise $100,000, $250,000 - even a staggering $500,000, as at last night's dinner.

Indeed, the Democrats have actually outpaced the GOP in gifts of $200,000 or more from individuals, with Clinton & Co. raising $28.1 million so far this cycle, and the Republicans $18 million, according to FECInfo, which surveys contributions at the federal level. The GOP still leads in corporate donations, though.

"I'm amazed, astounded, at just how much money people are able to raise," says Robert Mutch, a campaign finance analyst in Washington.

It's the economy, stupid

Party faithful on both sides attribute the donation surge to a booming economy that facilitates generosity, as well as aggressive fund-raising by party leaders. President Clinton, for instance, is said to have raised as much as $1 billion for Democrats since 1992. He was expected to be a major attraction at last night's rally.

This year's exceptionally tight races for the White House and Congress have also helped spur contributions.

"There's a real feeling that we may be able to win both houses of Congress, and to restore integrity to the White House," says Clifford May, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Where all of this is leading, however, is hard to say.

Some analysts see this kind of mega fund-raising as inevitable, since politicians have to keep up with each other and with increasing television advertising costs.

And to some, there's nothing wrong with the current system. "The idea that there is something sinister is belied by the sheer size. There is so much money and so many people involved that no politician could possibly serve all those people," says Roger Pilon at the Cato Institute.

But reformers don't share this view. They point to excessive influences on both sides - whether it's unions applying pressure to Democrats or corporations currying favors from Republicans. Their hope is that the spiral of money and influence will feed public outrage and encourage reform - if not in this Congress, then perhaps the next.

Donor fatigue?

Another view, shared by Mr. Corrado, is that campaign financing has come full circle and returned to the days of pre-fund-raising laws, when the parties basically extorted money from groups and individuals who wanted access.

But the constant drive to collect more may lead to "donor fatigue," analysts warn.

Indeed, the founders of DreamWorks studio - the Hollywood trio that has been one of President Clinton's most reliable sources of big donations - plans to quit fund-raising after November. "You can only do this so long," said spokesman Andy Spahn last month.

One major giver in the dotcom group - a relatively new force plying both parties - believes the frenzy could be reaching its apex, and that the Internet will become the cheap and preferred advertising venue of the future.

"We may well be in the high part of the arc," says Mark Walsh, president of VerticalNet, a Horsham, Pa.-based company which facilitates online business.

Dotcom wealth

Mr. Walsh, a Democrat, typifies today's giving trends. He's a first-time donor recommended to the Democratic National Committee by a former high-tech colleague. When asked by the DNC if he could give $250,000, Walsh says he was not shocked by the size of the request.

"In this game, the stakes got high, and high stakes mean a high price," he says. Walsh not only donated the $250K (as an individual, not a corporation), he's shaking the money tree among other dotcoms.

In fact, these days, it's easier to raise hundreds of thousands rather than five thousand, or one thousand, says Claire Dwoskin, the wife of a northern Virginia property developer who was aiming to raise $1 million for the Democrats last night.

She says her donors are so "scared" of George W. Bush - of the conservative judges he would appoint, of what he may do to the environment, of Social Security privatization - that they are eager to give.

And while the amount being raised may sound huge, when compared to what companies spend to market potato chips, or yogurt, or even cars, "I'm not sure it is," says the RNC's Mr. May.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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