Hey, big spenders

June 10, 1994

California's primary elections point to a very expensive Senate race in the fall. Democrats nominated Sen. Diane Feinstein, who was elected to fill out a term two years ago. Republicans nominated Rep. Mike Huffington, who won his House seat two years ago, too. They are a couple of big spenders.

Mr. Huffington spent $5.4 million to win his House seat -- most of that his own money. He has vowed to spend whatever it takes out of his own pocket to win the Senate seat. That could be a lot. There were two Senate races in California in 1992 -- and the four principal candidates spent $33 million total. Senator Feinstein spent over $8 million, some of it her own. She, too has vowed to spend whatever it takes to win this year.

These are not empty promises on either her part or Representative Huffington's. Her wealth is estimated at $50 million. His, $75 million. Hers is actually her husband's, a San Francisco businessman. Mr. Huffington's millions come from his Texas family's oil fortune.

This is not just a California phenomenon. Among the millionaire senators who have dug into their own deep pockets to "buy" Senate elections is John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, for example. One recent study of senatorial financial disclosure statements concluded that more than 30 of 100 senators were millionaires, and several of them spent lavishly to get there in the first place.

Some citizens look at winners like Senator Feinstein and Representative Huffington and cry out for limits on what plutocrats can spend on their own campaigns. There are two problems with this approach. The Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional. And in some cases, only wealthy candidates willing to spend their own money can fairly challenge incumbents, whose Senate campaign-related perks are the equivalent of a personal fortune.

As to the latter point, typically millionaire senators don't have to spend their own money to get re-elected. The perks do the work. But as in Senator Feinstein's case and in a couple of others this year, well-heeled challengers make even the super-rich incumbent start writing checks.

What's the answer? We confess we don't know. What we do know is that representative democracy is not supposed to be like this.

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