House races go national

In close contests, issues and fundraising extend far beyond a district's boundaries.

It's a blazing hot day, and California state Sen. Adam Schiff is thumping on doors, handing out brochures, and asking strangers for votes.

But this would-be US congressman has one advantage that most challengers in Election 2000 don't - about $3.5 million to spend on his campaign. And the checks and credit-card debits just keep coming, from New York to Alaska.

Welcome to California's 27th District, home to the Rose Bowl, the New Hollywood, and Rep. James Rogan, the most vulnerable of the GOP House managers who led the 1999 trial to impeach President Clinton. The bid to unseat him could make this the most expensive House race in US history. Insiders say that spending by the candidates alone could top $10 million - much of it coming from outside the district.

The contest reveals a sharp split that is emerging in House elections. While the majority of races go nearly uncontested, a select few have become the focus of national attention.

No longer do candidates raise money mainly in their own districts or even on issues key to their constituents. In fact, national fundraising drives may be based on issues that don't even figure in local campaigns.

Congressman Rogan's high-profile role in the impeachment, for example, is a dominant theme in the fundraising literature of both candidates, though it has yet to be mentioned on the stump or in campaign ads.

At the same time, these candidates increasingly risk seeing their own messages drowned out by a flood of spending on so-called "issue ads" by national groups.

"The outside money rushing into these close races will step all over the candidate's message," says Larry Makinson, director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. "The candidates are going to get caught in other people's crossfire.

Control of House

The bid for Rogan's seat is one of about 45 tight races in the country that will determine which party controls the House in 2001. These races are a magnet for national campaign dollars.

"The irony ... is that in most congressional districts in the country, the election has already been decided, because incumbents have such a huge financial advantage," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based public-interest group.

"We're going to wind up this year in a crazy circumstance, where 90 percent of the House races will for all practical purposes be uncontested, with challengers having little money, while in the other 10 percent of the races, the districts are going to be drowning in money," he adds.

While it's not unusual for money to be concentrated in the tight races, the difference this year is in the amount pouring in - and where it's coming from.

Both Rogan and Schiff invested early in national direct-mail fundraising campaigns, a strategy they say they were forced into by national forces working against them. Rogan says he's a target of Clinton supporters eager to take revenge for his role in impeachment.

"I'm really the only vulnerable House manager in the pile. I'm the guy all their guns are being turned on, and I keep watching the money that is pouring in [to defeat me]," he said in an interview.

"If I lose this race, it will be because I cast a vote for impeachment in a district and a climate where it was horribly unpopular. But there are some things more important than job security," he says. His approval ratings in the district dropped to 25 percent during impeachment, but have since rebounded, he adds.

Schiff says he went national to defend himself from the flood of right-wing money pouring into the race. "We were very reluctant to embark on a national fundraising effort, but we were greeted with the prospect of ultra-right funding to prop up [Rogan] in a district that does not share his values," he says.

Unlike the other House managers, Rogan did not come from a "safe" district. His previous two races had been tightly contested. And registration favors Democrats in this district by eight points. "I spot my opponent eight points in registration even before the race begins," he says.

Record amount of cash

The flood of outside money into this race has put Schiff near the top of all fundraising efforts for House races this year. As a relative unknown, he has outpaced even the incumbents in House races, with the exception of Rogan and minority leader Richard Gephardt, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Both national parties are targeting resources on this race. National labor unions have pledged millions to run issue ads in key House races. (Ads that do not specifically endorse a candidate escape federal restrictions on corporate or union money in campaigns.) And both candidates worry that outside money could obscure their own campaigns.

"It's going to be an indecipherable blur after a while. You lose control of your own message," says Schiff.

But the wild card in this race could be new interest groups using the Internet to channel national money faster and cheaper to local candidates.

This week, the Web-based group MoveOn.com is sending e-mails to some 25,000 supporters in the vicinity of the 27th to let people know about volunteer opportunities in the Schiff campaign.

MoveOn.com was set up by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to protest the impeachment trial and the "13 angry men" who pursued it. After impeachment, the group began channeling funds to political campaigns through its Web site. As of July, MoveOn.com had directed more than $140,000 to the Schiff campaign.

"We started out sending a petition to 100 friends in September 1998. Ultimately 500,000 signed on," says co-founder Joan Blades. "We're targeting candidates who are out of sync with public opinion on issues like impeachment and gun control."

At the same time, a Washington-based House Managers Political Action Committee is pursuing its own Internet campaign to direct more resources to threatened GOP House managers. "By election, we will have raised from $80,000 to $100,000," says PAC director Greg Roney.

Too close to call

The race in the 27th is still too close to call, but political handicappers say it's "leaning Democratic," in part because of Schiff's success at raising the national money needed to keep pace with the incumbent.

As of June 30, Rogan had raised $4.6 million to Schiff's $2.9 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. But Rogan had already spent three-fourths of what he had raised on fundraising appeals and cable television spots, leaving both candidates with about the same resources to take into the last weeks of the campaign.

The close nature of the race has both candidates battling for the vote of local ethnic communities and interest groups.

"This race could be decided by less than 2,000 votes, and the ethnic communities in this district - Armenians, Asian groups, Latinos, and African-Americans - will be tremendously important," says Albert Abkarian, chairman of the local Armenian American Republican Council, which has endorsed Rogan. The Armenian-American community is a key constituency in the 27th, where some 22,000 are registered to vote.

On a campaign swing through the district for Rogan last month, House Speaker Dennis Hastert told Armenian-American groups that he would allow an Armenian genocide resolution to come to a House vote, if it made it through committee. The House Committee on International Relations holds hearings on the issue today.

"That vote would have a major impact on the Armenian community here," says Mr. Abkarian.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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