The $1 Billion Midterm Election

Flow of 'soft money,' preparations for 2000 help explain record fund-raising this year.

The price tag for this year's midterm elections: a historic $1 billion, and rising.

That's the most money ever spent to elect federal candidates in a nonpresidential election year. And it's only the official Federal Election Commission tally of candidate and party spending through Oct. 15. It doesn't include hard-to-track independent expenditures by outside groups - or the last minute cash that always flows into hot races.

Most voters are likely unsurprised by the fact that this year's elections are so expensive. More money in politics? Might as well write this story: "Sun Rises in East - Daylight Returns."

But professionals say the increase is somewhat unexpected. There are not that many competitive congressional races this year, and it's competition that normally drives spending up.

Their explanations for the rise in campaign cash range from the need to keep fund-raising machinery greased for the 2000 presidential election to the boom in Washington lobbying.

"The money has to do with what's after the election. It's how to influence members in the next Congress," says Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Preelection reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that federal candidates and the major parties have raised $1.04 billion, through Oct. 14, for the 1998 off-year election cycle.

The bulk of that cash went to House and Senate candidates themselves. Their fund-raising totals are $575 million for the period, as opposed to the $464 million that went to Democratic and Republican national committees.

But the big gains in money came at the party level.

Candidate fund-raising has increased only about 2 percent since the last nonpresidential election. But Republican committees raised $185 million for the 1998 election cycle, 16 percent more than they took in for 1993-94. Democratic committees had less cash in total, at $107 million, but their increase was a whopping 40 percent over the 1993-94 off-year vote.

At least two important trends may underlie these totals.

The first is that, whatever the total, neither the Democratic Party nor the GOP raised as much as it had hoped.

Republican leaders had planned on $37 million for their "Operation Breakout" series of TV and radio ads. They now say they expect to devote no more than $25 million to the campaign. Democrats had set an $18 million goal for their "Unity '98" fund-raising. That's been whittled down by at least $6 million.

The second major trend behind the dollars this year is the increased importance of so-called "soft money," which is supposed to be used for everything except direct "Vote for X" appeals for federal candidates.

Remember soft money? It has been a major target of campaign-finance reformers.

Well, wait till next year. Soft money continues to flow in like water from the Nile. Through Oct. 14, the Republican Party had raised $94 million in soft funds, an increase of 144 percent over the last midterm vote, according to the FEC. Democratic committees raised $79 million, an 84 percent increase.

As overall campaign spending inches up, it is important to note that there are few hot individual races that are costing megabucks, say experts.

TRUE, the US Senate race in New York, which pits incumbent Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) against Rep. Charles Schumer (D) will be the most expensive in the nation, with the candidates spending about $32 million between them. The bitter rematch between former Rep. Bob Dornan (R) and incumbent Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) of California will likely end up the second most expensive House race ever.

But overall "this is the least competitive set of elections in terms of number of truly competitive races in the last decade, says Ellen Miller, director of Public Campaign in Washington. "So the pool of races that would attract [big] money is very small."

What is happening, according to other analysts, is that a growing percentage of the money in elections is flowing toward expected winners, as opposed to close races.

That is because contributors are seeking not to influence elections because of their partisan beliefs, but to gain access to whomever is in power.

"Money follows winners more than determines them," says Rob Richie, executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington.

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