Contributions to Senate and House campaigns are continuing to soar, according to a Times analysis of candidate reports, and most incumbents are widening their already enormous financial advantage over challengers.
Fueling the spending spiral are special-interest contributions from the political action committees (PACs) of business, labor and ideological groups. As fast as overall campaign contributions are growing, PAC contributions are growing even faster.
In California, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who spent $2.8 million in the 1980 election, plans to pour at least $6 million into his hotly contested reelection effort this year. California also has a pack of well-financed Republican challengers, and party officials say whoever wins the June 3 primary could spend as much as Cranston.
Elsewhere, incumbents have used their huge campaign war chests to scare off would-be opponents. In New York, former Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman dropped a planned challenge to Republican Sen. Alphonse M. D'Amato, who built up a cash surplus of $4.2 million during 1985.
"I am not personally wealthy," she said, "and his head start means I would have to spend most of my time raising money instead of raising issues."
Similarly, Democratic Reps. Les AuCoin and Ron Wyden of Oregon declined to challenge Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), whose campaign coffers were bursting with $3.5 million as 1986 began.
Altogether, senators running for reelection this year raised five times as much money as challengers in 1985, up from the 4-1 advantage enjoyed by incumbents seeking reelection in 1984. In the House, where the incumbents' advantage was 3-1 two years ago, it is now 4-1.
$54.6 Million in Gifts
Contributions to all Senate candidates totaled $54.6 million last year, according to recently released Federal Election Commission records. That is nearly four times greater than in 1979, the last comparable pre-election year for the group of 34 Senate seats up for grabs in November, when continued Republican control will be at stake.
And House candidates collected $58.6 million in 1985, an increase of 52% in just two years.
With the elections seven months away, most candidates have yet to begin spending heavily. But as more and more candidates spend more and more money on television advertising, mail and opinion polls, total spending could reach $10 million in at least three of this year's Senate races and exceed $5 million in five others. The number of million-dollar House races this year will easily top the 1984 record of 35.
Special-interest money, already substantial in previous elections, is playing an increasingly significant role this year. PAC money, which constituted 15% of Senate candidates' receipts in 1979, shot up to 24% in 1985. And among House candidates, PACs have contributed more than $1 of every $3 that has been collected. PAC contributions totaled $33.4 million in 1985.
PACs are bestowing the overwhelming bulk of their generosity on incumbents. Many House Democrats, cashing in on their leadership status on key committees, now receive more than half of their funds from PACs instead of from individual constituents back home. Last year, incumbents received 96% of the $20.1 million in PAC donations to House candidates and 74% of the $9.9 million given to Senate candidates.
Why this sharp tilt toward incumbents? Pure pragmatism, PAC managers say. PACs, whose ultimate goal is influencing legislation, want to back winners, and incumbents usually win elections. In 1984, 90% of the senators and 95% of the House members who sought reelection were returned to office.
"PACs seldom give challengers a break," said David Cohen, co-director of the Advocacy Institute, a citizens group seeking tightened limits on PAC giving. "That's why Republicans are angry that business PACs contribute to Democrats with seniority in the House" instead of to Republican challengers.
Stoking That Anger
Aggressively stoking that anger is Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who makes this bald pitch to PACs: "We're going to be the majority party (in the House) for a long time, so it doesn't make good business sense to give to Republicans."
Not only do incumbents raise more money than their opponents, but they generally line up broad financial support well in advance of the next election, before their challengers have time to knock on doors. Some incumbents even raid the other party.
In 1980, Cranston compiled "an absolutely unbelievable list of something like a hundred major Republican business people, from David Packard on down," said state Public Utilities Commissioner William Bagley, who was on the list, referring to the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Co. and former deputy secretary of defense. Cranston recalled that "several Republicans who were thinking of running were shocked to find these people already were contributing to me." His challenger turned out to be Paul Gann, who polled only 37% of the vote.
Cranston tried the same thing last year, enlisting the likes of retired industrialist Leonard Firestone ($2,000 from him and his wife) and California Federal Savings & Loan Chairman Robert R. Dockson ($500). But Rep. Ed Zschau (R-Los Altos), a well-regarded member of the large pack of challengers, has trumped Cranston's ace, recruiting industrialist Packard as his finance chairman.
For incumbents, the fund-raising advantage is only one of many. Officeholders naturally benefit from free publicity as they go about their official business in Washington, and they enjoy a free-mailing privilege, called the congressional frank, that lets them send newsletters, calendars and other voter-friendly materials to constituents. By some projections, the frank alone could cost taxpayers as much as $162 million this year.
To overcome incumbents' natural advantages, challengers resort to a variety of stratagems. The most effective method, if they are rich, is to spend a lot of their own money. Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) captured an open seat two years ago while "lending" his campaign $10.2 million.
Doesn't Always Work
But it doesn't always work; New York Democrat Andrew Stein failed to unseat Republican Rep. Bill Green despite using $836,000 of his publishing family's wealth.
And challengers are not the only ones who have their own wealth to fall back on. Green, heir to a supermarket fortune, was able to lend his campaign $177,000 to help foil Stein's challenge. In the Senate, more than half of the incumbents are millionaires.
Challengers who are not fabulously rich must try to raise cash the usual way, from PACs and individuals. Their first task is convincing potential contributors that the incumbent can be beaten.
Democrat Pete Geren, mounting a half-million-dollar challenge to freshman Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), is waving a Washington newsletter that rates the race a tossup and a poll that shows only one voter in five in the sprawling Fort Worth-to-Houston district can name the local congressman.
"Of course, he (Barton) has run a million pieces of franked mail through their hands since the poll was taken," Geren says ruefully.
Mark Holtzman, a diminutive 25-year-old Republican who is taking on Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.), is that rare challenger whose advantages rival those of the incumbent. As a teen-ager, Holtzman helped run President Reagan's successful 1980 Pennsylvania campaign, and until recently he directed Citizens for America, the conservative lobbying group headed by Lewis Lehrman.
Using his connections, he has brought former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) to Wilkes-Barre for fund-raisers and has lined up former President Gerald R. Ford and Vice President George Bush for two more. Already, he has raised $545,000, more than double Kanjorski's total.
Holtzman, noting that the district was recently represented by former Democrat Rep. Daniel J. Flood, a House Appropriations Committee powerhouse, said his own ability to attract celebrities to his side is a big plus. "People here are used to a heavy hitter in Washington," he said brashly.
Kanjorski is not impressed. "This presents to the public the idea that congressional seats are buyable," he said.
The statistics say Kanjorski is wrong. In 1984, 13 of 16 successful House challengers and all three winning Senate challengers either outspent the incumbents or nearly matched them.
'Money in Politics'
As the cost of running for Congress soars ever higher and special-interest groups grow more and more important, pressure for overhauling today's financing system is mounting even among many of the incumbents whom it benefits.
"The role of money in politics is obscene and needs to be changed very fundamentally because for those of us who are in marginal districts, it just consumes too much time," said Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), the House's 10th-leading fund-raiser last year.
The Senate last year postponed action on a bill to curb PAC contributions. "PAC money is destroying the election process," contended retiring Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a sponsor of the bill. "PACs set the country's political agenda and control nearly every candidate's position on the important issues of the day."
The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and backed by Common Cause, the "citizens lobby," would limit overall PAC contributions for House candidates to $100,000 and for Senate candidates to a range of $175,000 to $750,000, depending on the size of the state. It would also decrease the amount an individual PAC may give to a candidate from $5,000 to $3,000 per election and increase the amount an individual may give from $1,000 to $1,500.
Some Shun PACs
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), one of a handful of legislators who accept no PAC money, said sentiment is building in Congress for public financing of congressional elections. Under one scheme, candidates who accepted public campaign funds would be required to limit their personal contributions and their overall campaign spending. Congress almost adopted such a system in 1974 when it voted for voluntary public financing of presidential elections.
Other reform proposals call for giving underfinanced candidates free television time and subsidizing candidates whose opponents draw heavily on personal wealth.
But House challenger Geren warned that limiting PAC or personal contributions would merely encourage more "independent expenditures"--direct spending by outside organizations on behalf of congressional candidates. The National Conservative Political Action Committee, for example, regularly spends thousands of dollars a year to promote the candidacy of conservative candidates, and the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution protects such expenditures from congressionally established limits.
"So, frankly," Geren said, "I don't see much realistic chance of leveling the playing field."
WHERE THE MONEY IS
Congress' top campaign fund raisers in 1985, compared with funds raised by the leading opponents.
SENATE Total Amount receipts from PACs Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) $5,137,600 $965,500 Joe Lutz (R) 49,700 2,000 Jim Weaver (D) 11,200 0 Alfonse D'Amato(R-N.Y.) 4,045,500 503,300 Mark Green (D) 0 0 Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) 3,435,600 519,800 Ed Zschau (R) 844,700 30,800 Arthur Laffer (R) 690,600 8,100 Ed Davis (R) 482,300 23,100 Bobbi Fiedler (R) 452,900 20,900 Robert Naylor (R) 438,500 15,100 Mike Antonovich (R) 152,900 2,500 Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) 2,441,200 259,800 Bob Graham (D) 1,371,000 100,000 Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) 2,379,700 396,600 Bob Edgar (D) 703,900 131,700 Don Bailey (D) 94,000 3,800 HOUSE Jim Wright (D-Tex.) 1,336,900 514,900 Don McNiel (R) 0 0 Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) 1,149,600 138,600 (no declared Democratic challenger in 1985) Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) 561,800 317,100 (no declared Republican challenger in 1985) Steve Bartlett (R-Tex.) 492,100 91,000 (no declared Democratic challenger in 1985) Joseph DioGuardi (R-N.Y.) 487,200 107,000 Oren Teicher (D) 8,700 2,100
SENATE Cash on hand, end of year Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) $3,546,000 Joe Lutz (R) 13,200 Jim Weaver (D) 2,700 Alfonse D'Amato(R-N.Y.) 4,190,300 Mark Green (D) 0 Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) 1,940,600 Ed Zschau (R) 670,800 Arthur Laffer (R) 13,900 Ed Davis (R) 38,800 Bobbi Fiedler (R) 468,100 Robert Naylor (R) 60,400 Mike Antonovich (R) 474,800 Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) 899,200 Bob Graham (D) 1,110,600 Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) 2,189,400 Bob Edgar (D) 240,600 Don Bailey (D) 77,300 HOUSE Jim Wright (D-Tex.) 1,094,200 Don McNiel (R) 0 Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) 467,700 (no declared Democratic challenger in 1985) Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) 421,100 (no declared Republican challenger in 1985) Steve Bartlett (R-Tex.) 455,500 (no declared Democratic challenger in 1985) Joseph DioGuardi (R-N.Y.) 183,000 Oren Teicher (D) 400
Source: Federal Election Commission