Money adds to edge for GOP In year with few big issues, cash could swing some races

October 23, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The news of presidential scandals, budget battles and impeachment wars may be eliciting yawns on the campaign trail, but one major export from the nation's capital could yield results this election: money.

In a year when no overarching theme is shaping the congressional election, a flood of campaign cash raised by national Republican groups could swing at least some tight races in favor of GOP candidates, Republican and Democratic strategists say.

"We are holding our own, although we will probably be outspent 2-1," said Paige Richardson, campaign manager for Brian Baird, a Democrat running for an open seat in Washington state. "If it was just even footing, without any outside interests, we would be far ahead. Instead, we're ahead by a nose."

Indeed, Republicans predict that a late surge of spending by their party could help them gain about a a dozen or more House seats and up to six Senate seats.

In an incumbent-friendly year, the political battles are raging on the margins; the vast majority of lawmakers will cruise to re-election. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that in nearly two-thirds of House races -- 280 seats -- the incumbent held a fund-raising edge of at least 10-to-1, chasing away most serious challengers.

But there are enough competitive races to give the Republicans a chance to increase their majority significantly, especially in the Senate, where the GOP is focusing its resources. The 33 House and five Senate seats being vacated by retiring members account for many of the closely fought races.

"You never have enough resources," cautioned Mike Russell of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "But we feel good about our ability to get on the air and contact our voters."

The ads on the airwaves have already put Democrats on the defensive, and with the elections 11 days away, the deluge is just beginning. The House and Senate Republican election committees have already outspent the Democrats, and they still hold a hefty advantage in cash in the bank.

"The real concentrated ads are yet to hit," said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, head of the Democratic National Committee.

By most accounts, Brian Baird should be doing well. He came within 887 votes of knocking off Republican Rep. Linda Smith in 1996. And with Smith giving up her House seat to run for the Senate, Baird would seem to be the heir apparent. As of Oct. 1, he had raised a remarkable $983,000, compared with his Republican opponent's $278,000.

But that does not take account of the $700,000 thrown into the race by the national Republican Party, a sum that has blanketed the airwaves with advertising on behalf of the Republican candidate, Donald M. Benton.

Democrats nationwide are facing such an onslaught. This year, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have raised nearly $168 million among them. Their Democratic counterparts have raised far less -- $91.6 million.

The disparity between the official party committees does not count money raised by Republican leadership political action committees -- which have outstripped Democratic PACs this election season -- by $3.4 million to $513,000, or the conservative interest groups that have poured money into their own ads on behalf of Republican issues.

Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, said she believes an advertising blitz by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a small-business lobby, is resonating with voters.

Democrats say they are bewildered by the multipronged Republican attack.

"There's no way I can quantify it all," Romer said. "I just know there's a great deal more money on the other side."

That disparity is most pronounced in Senate campaigns, where up to nine seats are regarded as competitive. The Republican Senatorial Committee expects to reach its fund-raising target of $70 million by Nov. 3. The Democrats have so far raised $16.9 million.

"That's the basics of politics," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster. "Money is always the deciding factor."

On the House side, the National Republican Congressional Committee's vaunted Operation Breakout has aired advertisements touting the Republican record in 25 states. In a dozen states, the committee has produced specially tailored advertisements with local appeal.

Karisa Johnson, campaign manager for a vulnerable freshman Democrat, Rep. Jay Johnson of Wisconsin, awoke yesterday to a new ad triumphantly proclaiming, "It took this Republican Congress just four years to balance the budget," while dismissing President Clinton's record.

As of early this month, Jay Johnson was well ahead of his `D opponent, Mark Green, in personal fund raising, $477,625 to $311,671. But Green was getting considerable help from Washington.

"It just makes everything escalate," Karisa Johnson said of the flood of outside money. "I think everybody would have preferred to run a localized campaign."

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