Sticker Shock in California Race

Governor's contest may be costliest state race ever in US. Will voters tune in?

The race to be California's next governor is on a trajectory to become the most expensive campaign for state office in America's history.

Political analysts both inside and outside of the state are watching with awe and curiosity a spending spree that many regard as a grand experiment in free-market politics, with a vengeance.

This experiment is born of several unusual circumstances that separate it from the normal increase in campaign spending from one election cycle to another. And it could offer clues to the linkage between money and voter apathy.

In particular, analysts are watching to see if the stunning increase in early spending - already at the rate of several million dollars per week - will entice or numb voters by ballot time. Also, they expect new indicators of the power of party affiliation as the ideological distinctions between Democrats and Republicans blur.

Money set the tone for this year's race from the start. A dollar-linked chain reaction began last Fall when multimillionaire businessman Al Checchi announced he was running, preempting some candidacies from the political establishment. Most notably, his vow to spend whatever was necessary is viewed as helping persuade presumed front-runner Senator Dianne Feinstein to stay out of the race.

The chain reaction continued when veteran member of Congress Jane Harman jumped in at the last minute. Though an experienced politician, Ms. Harman joined Mr. Checchi in having virtually no recognition statewide and deep enough pockets to bankroll a late-starter campaign. Her husband, Sidney, has made a fortune in the audio-manufacturing business. Joining them in the three-way Democratic primary race is Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who is fighting to stay competitive with dollars raised the old-fashioned way, through contributions.

California set the high-water mark for campaign spending in the 1994 gubernatorial race. By the time the balloons were on the floor that November, candidates had spent just over $60 million in both the primaries and general election. At this stage of that election, in March 1994, candidates had spent about $14 million.

Candidate spending for the 1998 race already tops $24 million - with 11 weeks to go before the primary and eight months before the general election. Some analysts predict the primary tally alone could be $50 million.

Checchi already has spent more than $16 million and Harman about $4 million. Clearly at a disadvantage, Davis campaign director Garry South says, "my question is whether politics in California is going to degenerate into roller derby for rich dilettantes."

Voters tuning out?

Less-partisan analysts are questioning the impact, even in a state where running for governor is exceptionally costly given the size of the state.

"I wonder if this type of barrage will turn off even more voters," says Kent Cooper, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. With Checchi's inexperience and Harman's late start, he's concerned that media advisers are in charge and could blanket voters too early, producing "voter turnoff."

Pollster Mark DiCamillo says he's watching to see if the increase in early spending will decouple the long-term trends of higher campaign spending and "growing voter inattentiveness to politics and the delay of decisionmaking until later and later in a campaign." The latest California Field Poll, which put Harman in the lead over Checchi, with Mr. Davis in third, showed that even as spending skyrockets, the percentage of voters with "no opinion" of the contenders remains high.

Of course, that's partly what's driving the spending. "We have three people who are not well known," says Kam Kuwata, campaign manger for Harman. "It requires a lot of money to get known in a state this size."

Checchi's campaign, asked repeatedly about his staggering expenditure, says if that's what it takes to break into California politics, so be it. And if anything, voters should be reassured that he answers to no special interests.

Shaking up parties

But critics of current campaign practices are worried. "Our concern is the degree to which wealthy candidates deter other candidates from running, or forces those who do to rely heavily on special-interest groups to remain competitive," says Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, a lobbying group.

Mr. Cooper of the Center for Responsive Politics says wealthy candidates don't ask their party for support, which can weaken the party over time, as well as its ability to generate future candidates.

At last weekend's state Democratic Party convention, Davis criticized Checchi for having too few allegiances to the party.

Besides the rush for name recognition, the spending level is also a function of the open primary this year, which means "candidates are casting wider nets" and spending more, says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in southern California.

Annelise Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, says even at this level of expenditure, there is not cause for concern. She estimates the total expenditures will only amount to several dollars per actual primary voter. And she says voters have been deceived by reform boosters into thinking that more restrictions are needed. Politics "isn't a place where we should be interested in greater limits," she says.

Though California voters approved campaign-spending limits in 1996, the courts have struck them down.

While the unusual Checchi and Harman candidacies have undoubtedly driven primary expenditures to new heights, most analysts also expect a costly general election. Presumed GOP nominee Dan Lungren, who has no serious opposition in the primary, has simply had more time to fatten his war chest, they note.

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