West Virginia's Ultimate Underdog

GOP loner Yoder, deserted by party, takes on well-heeled Democratic Senator Rockefeller

JOHN YODER drives thousands of miles a week, even though his front tires have gone bald. To save cash, he eats McDonald's hamburgers and sleeps at Motel 6. He has no campaign manager, no press secretary, and no TV commercials. Welcome to the cash-poor but dogged Republican campaign for the United States Senate in West Virginia.

Like David battling a political Goliath, Republican Yoder keeps on slugging, even when his own national party has given up on him, and cut off his funds.

Mr. Yoder, struggling uphill in this Democrat-dominated state, is challenging one of the best-financed, best-known rising political stars in this region, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, scion of one of the richest families in America. Senator Rockefeller will probably spend over $3 million on this race, and he could easily raise more. Yoder, scrounging for $10 and $20 contributions, will spend about $35,000.

Rockefeller will get over $1.3 million in political-action committee money, almost every dollar from out of state. Yoder won't get a penny of PAC cash.

Rockefeller will have almost unlimited funds for TV ads, billboards, campaign staff, and anything else he needs. Yoder will have no posters, no billboards, no TV commercials. He once printed 1,000 bumper stickers, but promptly ran out of funds.

Even Yoder's own political party gave up on the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sends him no money anymore, gives him no help. But he keeps fighting. The battle involves more than just money, he says.

``Let's face it. If I could raise $10 million, Jay Rockefeller could spend $100 million. It's just one of those gaps. In fact, I think Rockefeller has to spend that much money if he wants to win in West Virginia.''

It's discouraging at times, of course. ``There have been times when I've wondered whether I should pull out of the campaign, or whether I would make it to the end,'' he admits.

Yoder's dollar dilemma is quite typical in US elections, despite years of national debate about campaign reform and occasional congressional reform efforts. By and large, incumbents overwhelm challengers, not only with campaign cash, but also with ``perks'' like free mail and political favoritism.

``Just look at the franking privilege,'' Yoder noted in a two-hour interview here. ``Rockefeller will have spent more money on franking [free mail] in the last six months than I will have to spend [for everything] in the whole campaign.''

Political analyst Charles Cook Jr., who closely tracks Senate races across the country, predicts Rockefeller will win here ``with ease.'' Yoder admits that might be right. But who knows?

``To be honest with you, it used to be very, very frustrating,'' he says. ``Recently I've been enjoying it quite a bit.... I guess one of the reasons I'm now enjoying it - and maybe I'm totally nuts - is that I've got this feeling I'm going to win.''

Yoder has proved himself a vote-getter in the past. At the age of 26, he was elected a Kansas circuit judge, becoming the youngest person in the US to hold that position. He had already graduated magna cum laude from Chapman College in California, taken his JD (doctor of laws) degree from the University of Kansas, and attained his master's in business from the University of Chicago.

In 1980, Yoder served as a judicial fellow at the US Supreme Court, and followed that with two years as special assistant to Chief Justice Warren Burger. The Reagan administration tapped the rising young conservative Republican to be the first director of the Asset Forfeiture Office, part of the antidrug effort, in the US Department of Justice.

Yoder's young bride didn't like living in Washington, so they compromised on Harper's Ferry, W. Va. - out of Washington, but still close.

Yoder, who now practices constitutional law, slowly became frustrated with his adopted state's poverty and political corruption, and decided he could do better than current officeholders.

``This state has been devastated,'' he says. West Virginia has the fastest declining population in the US. Two-thirds of its new college graduates flee the state in search of jobs.

At the root of these problems, Yoder says, are ``constantly increased taxes,'' for which he blames Democratic leaders. When taxes rise, ``we lose more revenue. And the solution [of Democrats] is to increase taxes to make up for the loss of revenue, which drives even more people out of the state.''

Adding to West Virginians' frustration, ``neighboring states have been prospering during the last 10 years ... but West Virginia has been going downhill during that whole period of time. We've lost 170,000 people over a 10-year period, about 9 percent of our population.''

As for Rockefeller, ``he promised 50,000 new jobs for West Virginia. He said he could walk into any board room in America because his name was John Rockefeller and talk corporations into moving to West Virginia. But what has happened? ... We've lost a higher actual number of population ... than any other state in the US.''

But since his election quest began in January, another motive has begun driving Yoder - campaign reform. ``The campaign system now is discrimination for the rich. Rich people can put as much of their own money into their campaign as they want. [Rockefeller put millions of his own funds into the 1984 Senate race.] But [under current law] I can't go out and borrow more than $1,000, even from my wife, to challenge him.''

In the 1984 Senate race, Rockefeller spent $12 million (much of it his own), or $32 per vote - a national record. Besides having his own money, this year Rockefeller is getting more PAC money than any other Senate candidate in America, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Yoder's solution: If the candidate is rich, the rules should be waived for his challenger. Allow the challenger to collect big contributions to offset wealth on the other side.

Can Yoder pull an upset here? It seems unlikely. But this is the year of the nonincumbent, the year when reformers are crying, ``Throw the rascals out.'' So anything is possible.

Meanwhile, Yoder just hopes his little Honda keeps running until Nov. 6. He's already rolled up 85,000 miles this year over the hills and in the hollows of this mountainous state. He has just two weeks and a few thousand more miles to go.

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