High cost of campaigning winnows the political field

Congress resumes finance-reform debate, even as big-name politiciansopt to quit.

Money, always a big factor in determining elections, has assumed an even greater role as strong man in the 2000 contests - defeating presidential hopefuls before Americans have cast a single primary vote and winnowing the field of candidates even at the House and Senate levels.

So intense are the current demands of fund-raising that seasoned politicians, including incumbents and big-name challengers, are increasingly bowing out early, or deciding not to run at all.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) provided the most recent example of the winnowing power of money, announcing last week that crushing fund-raising demands played a major part in her decision not to run for a vacant US Senate seat. With that decision, she joins a lengthening list of politicians - from incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey to aspiring senator Frankie Sue Del Papa, attorney general of Nevada - who cite the pressure to raise money as one reason they quit before they even got started.

As Congress tomorrow takes up the issue of campaign-finance reform, once again, some analysts say the problem now is not only the influence of money, but also the intimidation factor of having to raise so much from individual donors. The new level of self-winnowing by potential candidates and the degree to which money drives the process are hurting democracy, they say.

"In recent years, more and more experienced candidates are choosing not to seek office, especially Senate seats, because the burdens of fund-raising are too great," says Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and a campaign-finance expert.

Criteria for candidates

One consequence is that voters get fewer quality candidates to choose from, he says. Moreover, those who do end up on the ballot have been recruited in large part because they have personal wealth to back up their campaigns. The number of candidates for Congress who spend $100,000 or more of their own money has increased dramatically, Mr. Corrado adds.

"First and foremost, it's the wallet that's looked at," agrees Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report.

In the 1998 election election cycle, the average winning Senate candidate spent $4.7 million on radio and television advertisements, direct mail, telemarketing, and other campaign costs. All of it must be raised in $1,000 increments from individuals or $5,000 donations from political action committees (PACs).

"It's a humbling process," says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate campaigns for the Cook Political Report. "You're calling total strangers on the phone, introducing yourself, and then hitting them up for a grant." Strategists measure potential office-seekers largely on whether they're willing to spend 8 to 10 hours a day dialing for dollars, she adds.

The power of money is most evident in the presidential contest, in which the primaries this time are front-loaded and candidates feel pressed to raise more money sooner. George W. Bush, in fact, raised record amounts and became the presumed Republican nominee months before any ballots have been cast.

"When the public thinks about the problem of money in politics, one of the top three issues is the lack of competition," says Ellen Miller of Public Campaign, which advocates full public financing of campaigns. "They think the choices are made without their participation."

But others argue that candidates' ability to raise money is the best preelection measure of support. "If someone doesn't get much money, it suggests that his message isn't selling," says Roger Pilon at the Cato Institute here.

Ideas for reform range from taking off all contributor limits to total public funding. In between those extremes are suggestions that candidates should receive free broadcast time, or that small contributions to campaigns should be given tax credits.

But so far, a reform package has not been able to clear both chambers of Congress. Experts cite incumbents' reluctance to make changes that would help challengers, efforts by each political party to gain a fund-raising edge over the other, and lack of sustained interest by the public

Why Bill Marler didn't run

For Bill Marler, a lawyer and Democratic fund-raiser who serious considered challenging Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington in 2000, the money mentality in politics does not bode well for society. Fund-raising demands, which would have left him little time with his three young girls, were a key factor in his decision not to run. Mr. Marler was willing to spend $2 million of his own money, but he would have had to raise about $10 million more.

But especially disappointing, he says, was a trip to the nation's capital to meet with politicians and party operatives. With few exceptions, he says, they weren't interested in his ideas or passions, but rather in how much money he could put up, how much he could raise, and his poll numbers.

"It's a sad commentary, that people who have a desire to be in public service either have to get in at a young age ... or they have to have a lot of personal resources," he says. "It really limits our ability to get good candidates."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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