Office hopefuls spend much time with hands out

October 29, 1990|By Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

DENVER -- Democratic senatorial nominee Josie Heath, a distinct underdog against Republican Rep. Hank Brown for Colorado's open Senate seat next week, was talking recently about the strains of fund-raising -- not only in time required but also in the way it can drive a candidate to do things he or she otherwise never would contemplate.

She told of how she was sitting in her seat on an airplane just before last Christmas when a woman she had never seen before sat down next to her. Without having the faintest idea whether the woman was a Democrat or a Republican, or whether she even lived in Colorado, Heath recalled, "the first thought I had, and it was shameful, I wondered if I should ask her for a contribution."

Heath did not ask on that occasion, but she recalled that on her return trip she did give a campaign brochure to another fellow-passenger who did in fact send her a contribution. With her Republican opponent in possession of a much fatter campaign treasury, Heath is in the position of many other candidates for statewide or federal office this fall -- reduced to spending much of her time with her hand out, figuratively at least.

The other day, Heath's campaign manager, Sue Casey, triumphantly reported that her candidate had finally out-raised Brown in the third quarter of this year, $579,000 to $406,000. But overall through Sept. 30, according to the Federal Election Commission, Brown had collected just under $3,590,000 to "only" $1,211,580 for Heath. Even raising a million dollars in one of the smaller states leaves Heath a relative pauper in this race.

A million dollars in today's statewide elections, in fact, is to the average candidate what a billion dollars is to a member of a congressional appropriations committee -- chicken feed. Through Sept. 30, Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas has raised $10,452,840 for his re-election shoo-in against a Democrat few Texans have ever heard of. And in New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley has deposited $7,404,907 into his coffers against another unknown who has been able to scratch together a mere $429,498.

These are examples of candidates who don't really need nearly that much money to be returned to the Senate, but who harbor or are suspected of harboring presidential ambitions for 1992. For many other candidates this year, how much money they are able to raise is almost directly proportional to their chances of winning, or at least to their chances of putting up a competitive fight.

Money has always been, in Californian Jesse Unruh's memorable phrase, the mother's milk of politics. But nowadays it often determines not only which candidate wins but which candidates will even try to make a race. An effective way to keep a challenger out, or at least a serious challenger, is to produce the kind of numbers that Gramm and Bradley have been able to show.

For many of those individuals who do decide to run, the financial demands of campaigning in the television era -- especially this year when candidates are running negative commercials against their opponents right out of the gate -- are a straitjacket holding them tightly in its grip. This is particularly so now because negative ads must be answered quickly on the air, before their messages are accepted as the truth, whether they are or not.

In these final days of the off-year campaign, when those voters who will pay any attention at all to politics are finally tuning in, both sides in any contest are working frantically to flood the airwaves with commercials, to blow their own candidate's horn, to rap the opponent, or to defend against the opposition's televised barbs.

As a result, it is commonplace now that candidates are obliged simply to stop speech-making on the stump for considerable parts of the day so they can closet themselves in a hotel room or headquarters cubbyhole with a telephone and a list of past and prospective givers. For all the computer-age refinements available to a campaign, there is still no effective substitute for the candidate directly putting the bite on the faithful, or on the actual or potential favor-seeker with deep pockets.

In the tight Texas gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Ann Richards was obliged last week to leave the campaign trail to man the telephone for more contributions -- in a race in which she and her Republican opponent, Clayton Williams, already had raised a total of at least $25 million.

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