Sophisticates special interest groups pump money into campaigns; PAC-ing a powerful punch in November elections

A team of political experts gathered in the TV studio of BizNet, the American Business Network, to report how friends and foes are doing on the campaign trail in some 50 congressional races.

Listening on closed-circuit television in seven cities was an audience that could help make or break those candidates. It included officials from 150 political action committees with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend and one objective: to elect a Congress that is sympathetic to business.

The four-hour ''deleconference,'' sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce and aired last month, is one more sign of how sophisticated campaigns for Congress have become.

Not many years ago candidates could win the approval of party and community leaders, raise a few thousand dollars to cover the home district with posters and bumper stickers, and speak at the occasional pig roast, barbecue, or catfish fry.

But that kind of politics today looks a bit like a Model-T at the Daytona speedway.

In the 1982 elections for Congress, candidates need money - and lots of it - to pay for television time, computerized mailings, and expensive consultants. Except in rare instances, they can no longer rely only on money from local friends. A tough Senate race could cost millions of dollars, and a successful bid for a House seat is expected to run at least $250,000.

With every election candidates get more of this money from PACs, outside groups that have special interests. In the 1980 congressional races, business PACs gave $37 million to campaigns (an effort the Chamber of Commerce says paid off with a 70 percent win rate for its favored candidates). Labor union PACs contributed $13 million, and ''independent'' PACs such as conservative and anti-abortion groups gave $5 million.

Total PAC giving rose to an all-time high against a background of charges that Congress was selling itself to special interests.

A survey of representative PACs shows they will spend more money in 1982. All continue to work to help their friends, especially incumbents attentive to their special interests in Congress.

For business and conservative PACs, this is a year for protecting gains won in 1980. Labor and more ''liberal'' PACs meantime hope to recoup some of their losses.

Virtually all look for the close contests where a PAC donation could have impact. The Chamber of Commerce calls these ''opportunity'' races and lists about 100 of them, while labor PACs are targeting 80 races.

Business-oriented PACs may have the richest treasuries, but hundreds of other groups are seeking to influence the elections. They include pro and con groups on issues like abortion and gun control, as well as labor and business PACs. Here is what some PACs are doing:

Abortion foes

The National Pro-Life PAC, which helped retire some of the Senate's leading liberals in the past two elections, is bemoaning the fact that this year it must go against lesser known moderates.

In fact, the top of the Pro-Life target list is Sen. Jim Sasser (D) of Tennessee, who has sometimes voted with abortion foes. But recently when the Senate was tied in knots over an anti-abortion measure, Senator Sasser cast the deciding vote to table the measure, which ended Sen. Jesse Helm's crusade against abortion for this year.

No sooner had Senator Sasser voted ''yes'' to the tabling motion, than Peter Gemma, executive director of the Pro-Life PAC, dispatched a Tennessee radio advertisement putting the senator at the top of his hit list.

Mr. Gemma's Pro Life PAC is also working to defeat Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia by sending direct mailings on behalf of ''Concerned Christian Voters of West Virginia,'' an anti-Byrd group. Although Senator Byrd has not been a staunch pro-choice leader, abortion foes find his Republican opponent, US Rep. Cleve Benedict, friendlier to their side.

Although it became famous by launching attacks on incumbents, the agressive anti-abortion PAC is changing its strategy. ''We're having to protect more incumbents than we thought we did,'' says Gemma.

Pro-choice advocates

After watching the other side mow over Congress members who supported abortion rights, ''pro-choice'' groups are finally getting their act together. Their aim, according to Nanette Falkenberg, director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), is to show that a ''pro-choice'' vote is not political suicide.

In the past, any member of Congress who voted to protect abortion rights was lining up for a conservative hit list. NARAL's aim is to neutralize that threat.

The group would also like to score a big upset this November by unseating Sen. John C. Danforth (R) of Missouri and replacing him with Democratic state Sen. Harriet Woods, a pro-choice advocate who also has the strong backing of the National Organization for Women PAC.

The ''pro-choice'' PAC is also backing US Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a supporter who was redistricted into a race against veteran Republican Congresswoman Margaret Heckler.

Ms. Falkenberg says her group is watching a challenge to Sen. Quentin N. Burdick (D) of North Dakota, who is under attack from abortion foes. In some cases, her group may not be welcomed into a campaign. Despite his recent vote, Senator Sasser's office is making it clear that he does not want NARAL money or volunteers in his campaign.

Gun owners

For the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), the name of the game is to reward friends more than it is to defeat opponents. And the their best friend this year is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, who not only votes their way but also chairs an important judiciary subcommittee.

The NRA PAC, which expects to spend $2.3 million on elections this year, is also giving money to the Byrd campaign in West Virginia, even though his opponent scored well on the NRA gun rights test.

When the NRA found that one of its top defenders, Rep. Bill Hendon (R) of North Carolina had a difficult race, the group jumped in with the maximum donation allowed by law, $10,000, and sent out letters on his behalf and distributed Hendon bumper stickers to NRA members.

Although it eschews negative ads, except when opposing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts for president, the NRA PAC would like to see some incumbents defeated this year. Among them is Rep. Bob Shamansky (D) of Ohio, who voted against the NRA on an appropriations bill. So the PAC is sending $5,000 and support letters to aid his Republican opponent.

Gun control advocates

The fledgling Handgun Control Inc. PAC, tiny compared with its huge counterparts on the other side of the issue, will nonetheless try to make its mark on the elections. ''We don't have nearly as much money as the other side,'' says Donald Fraher, legislative director for the group, which hopes to have $100 ,000 to spend on the elections, compared with about $6,500 in 1980, its first year.

The gun control PAC is already chalking up two primary victories in which candidates they backed defeated incumbent Reps. Ronald M. Mottl (D) of Ohio and -Joseph F. Smith (D) of Pennsylvania.

Like most special interests, gun control is secondary. It is not the ''bread and butter'' issue of campaigning. However, the issue may have a test vote in the New Jersey race of Rep. Harold C. Hollenbeck, a Republican who is running in a traditionally Democratic district. His opponent Robert G. Torricelli has publicized his stand for handgun control and invited Handgun Control Inc.'s Fraher to campaign for him.

While the group is hardly big enough to affect a Senate race, it will be giving ''maximum'' donations of money and support to Rep. Anthony Toby Moffett (D) of Connecticut, who is trying to unseat Republican Senator Lowell P. Weicker. According to Fraher, Mr. Weicker has ''not been in the forefront'' on gun control, while Mr. Moffett has been a prime sponsor of gun control legislation.

Business interests

The US Chamber of Commerce saw so many of its friends arrive in Congress two years ago that now it is concentrating on guarding its flanks. About 40 percent of its effort will be to protect incumbents, with the rest divided between challengers and candidates for open seats.

''We identify races, alert the business community, and try to get other PACs'' to donate funds to friends, says Neil Newhouse, spokesman for the chamber of commerce. The chamber rates the friendliness of incumbents according their voting record on selected business issues.

Nearly all of the candidates labeled ''pro-business'' are Republican. Accordingly, the chamber of commerce is targeting three GOP senators for protection: David Durenburger of Minnesota, Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, all of whom face tight races for reelection. It is hoping to defeat Sen. George J. Mitchell (D) of Maine and elect Republicans in California and Virginia, the only states with retiring senators.

In House races, the chamber ferrets out the close races, where PAC dollars can make a difference and where there's a major philosophical split between candidates. For example, freshman Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut scored a low 5 percent in ''pro-business'' votes and faces a businessman in a rematch from 1980. The challenger, Tony Guglielmo, needs $280,000 more, advises a recent chamber of commerce publication that urges business PACs to give ''maximum support'' to elect the Republican.

With its approximately 100 targeted races, the chamber of commerce is also trying to unseat NRA target, Representative Shamansky.

Labor unions

Labor unions, long active in politics, have recently found themselves overshadowed by the growth of business PACs. In 1980, labor PACs contributed about $1 for every $3 given by business groups.

''We're nowhere close to the other guys,'' says Bernard Albert, spokesman for COPE, the political arm of the AFL-CIO. ''Our stength is in people. Gulf Oil cannot organize millions of people.''

Like the chamber of commerce, the labor union PAC rates Congress members by their votes. And since the two groups take opposite sides on both issues, ''friends'' of business become ''foes'' of labor.

The COPE list of favored senators is all Democratic. They are encouraging local PACs to support virtually all of the Democratic incumbents and defeat Senators Hatch and Schmitt, Republicans that the chamber of commerce wants to keep.

COPE also wants to protect one of its best friends, Rep. Phillip Burton (D) of California, who faces a tough race and is one of the chamber of commerce's targets for defeat. Mr. Burton scored 12 percent on the pro-business test and 93 on the COPE rating.

The labor PAC is also hoping to turn out a number of the 52 Republican freshmen who came in with the Reagan landslide. However, Albert concedes that with such an ''enormous amount of money from trade and right-wing PACs,'' challengers have hesitated to come forth.

Money is a problem for pro-labor candidates and Democrats, says Albert. ''But we offset it by the work we do among our members.'' Still, he concedes that ''a candidate with $1 million has an edge over one with a quarter million.''

It is that edge that PACs are seeking for their supporters.

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