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More Is Rarely Enough to Fill S.D. Campaign Coffers

Times Staff Writer

Nancy MacHutchin, one of San Diego’s most successful political fund-raisers during the 1980s, says most politicians follow one simple rule when it comes to collecting money for their campaigns.

“They never have enough, they always want more. . .,” MacHutchin said, chuckling from personal experience. “The word enough isn’t in their vocabulary.”

As Campaign ’88 enters its final month, MacHutchin’s maxim is being applied in myriad races throughout San Diego. With the ballot crowded with dozens of local, state and national contests, the competition for scarce campaign dollars, always vigorous, has been at an even greater pitch this year as candidates battle not only their opponents, but contenders in every other election, for donations.

Various Factors at Work

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Various factors influence a candidate’s fund-raising ability, starting with the office being sought and its impact on contributors’ lives. Couples with school-age children, for example, probably care more about who serves on the local school board than childless couples and, therefore, might be considered more promising ground for political prospecting.

Candidates’ backgrounds, policies and ideologies also open or close doors to donors. But candidates, campaign managers, political consultants and others agree that perhaps the most critical elements affecting fund raising are a candidate’s chances of winning and the closeness of his race.

“The very best situation, in terms of being able to raise money, is being a good, sharp candidate in a close, competitive election,” MacHutchin said. “If the district or the race is one-sided, both candidates will probably raise less. It hurts if you’re a big favorite. And it hurts even more if you’re a big underdog.”

With that as a backdrop, here is a look at fund raising from the different perspectives of three candidates: one widely viewed as a sure winner, another considered an even more likely loser and a third who is running in perhaps the most competitive local Assembly race in San Diego County.

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Everyone may love a winner, but Carol Bentley has found the axiom does not always translate into dollars in a political campaign.

After upsetting San Diego City Councilwoman Gloria McColl in last June’s Republican primary in the 77th Assembly District, Bentley assumed she would have little difficulty financing her general-election campaign. As a prohibitive favorite in the heavily Republican district, Bentley figured that state GOP leaders, as well as traditional local Republican donors, would flock to her campaign to ensure that the seat being vacated by Larry Stirling remains in the party’s hands.

However, when Bentley traveled to Sacramento shortly after her primary victory, she was taken aback when party leaders not only told her they would not contribute to her campaign, but asked her to help them raise funds for other candidates.

“Well, that was quite a shock,” recalled Bentley, who had hoped that the state party would at least pay off a $40,000 personal loan she made to her primary campaign. “I went there expecting to get money and instead found myself being asked to give it. I thought, wait a minute, this isn’t how it’s supposed to work.”

Insurmountable Edge

Republican Assembly leaders, however, are confident that the district’s 50%-37% GOP registration edge provides Bentley with an insurmountable advantage in her race against Democrat Sam Hornreich. Certain that she can and will win without their financial help, statewide Republican leaders have opted to focus their resources on other close races in which they hope to pick up the five more seats needed to control the Assembly.

“We’re very, very confident that Carol can hold that seat easily,” said Chris Jones, executive director of the Assembly Republican Political Action Committee. “We are helping in the sense that we’re urging other PACs to contribute to her campaign. But in terms of our own direct money, since we have a limited amount to spend, we’re trying to put it where it can do the most good in races where we have a chance to pick up a Democratic seat.”

The statewide party’s handshake-but-no-check stance toward Bentley, a 43-year-old aide to retiring state Sen. Jim Ellis (R-San Diego), illustrates the fund-raising challenge often faced by candidates perceived as all-but-sure winners.

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“In fund raising, the thing you have to do to move people off the dime is to convey some sense of urgency,” Bentley consultant Jim Johnston explained. “When you’re a clear front-runner, people don’t sense that urgency. They think you’re safe, that the money’s probably rolling in and that you don’t need their donation.”

Bentley said her fund-raising difficulties have been exacerbated by a widespread misconception among local GOP activists that her campaign is being bankrolled by the state party. Her success in correcting that impression, however, is evident in the fact that she has raised about $125,000 since the primary.

First viewed as an underdog in the primary to the better-known, better-financed McColl, Bentley has, in a single campaign, viewed fund raising from both ends of the political forecast. Ironically, the response she got as a long shot is similar to that she now receives as a favorite, Bentley said.

“In the primary, people said, ‘Oh, Carol, you don’t have a chance and we don’t want to waste our money,’ ” she said. “Now they say, ‘Oh, you’re in, you don’t need it.’ ”

Consultant Johnston concluded: “Mrs. McColl got hurt by perhaps taking too much for granted in the primary, and we don’t want to repeat that mistake. . . . If people think you’re either way ahead or way behind, it’s going to hurt your fund raising. But we’d certainly prefer the situation we’re in to the alternative.”

Given the choice, Democrat Mary Christian would gladly trade her political problems--fund-raising and otherwise--for those of Bentley.

While Bentley is having trouble convincing contributors that she needs their money, Christian faces an even harder sell in trying to convince supporters that they will not be wasting their money by donating to her long-shot 75th District campaign against Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas).

“There’s no question that when you’re running against an incumbent in a district with a big registration gap, it’s hard to convince people you have a serious chance,” said Christian, 58. “And, if they don’t think you have a chance, they don’t give you money. It’s the old situation where they don’t contribute because they don’t think you have a chance. But if they don’t contribute, you don’t have a chance.”

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Adding to her challenge is the fact that Christian has run unsuccessfully for so many offices that even many of her fellow Democrats regard her as San Diego’s answer to Harold Stassen.

“I guess some people think, ‘Well, Mary’s at it again,’ and that doesn’t help fund raising, either,” conceded Christian, who has run and lost races for mayor of San Diego, the City Council, the San Diego Board of Education, the Community College District board of trustees and the state Board of Equalization. In past elections, she was listed on the ballot as Christian-Heising, but, feeling that was “a little unwieldy,” decided to drop the second half this time.

Although the GOP’s 51%-34% registration edge in the North County Assembly district is compelling evidence of Christian’s gloomy prospects, the figures on the latest campaign finance reports paint an even bleaker picture.

As of Sept. 30, Mojonnier, who is running for a fourth two-year term, had raised $58,994--a modest amount in contrast with the war chests of most other incumbents, but more than enough in a race more in name than fact. In contrast, Christian reported contributions of only $6,150--with $5,000 of that being a personal loan--and expects to raise no more than $15,000 by the Nov. 8 election.

Framing the issue succinctly, MacHutchin noted: “If you’re a Democrat running in a Republican district, that and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee. If you’re perceived as a sure loser, fund raising becomes just impossible.”

The harsh political reality facing Christian is that even other Democrats acknowledge that, as one party leader put it, “Mojonnier probably couldn’t lose even if she tried.”

“Why give money to (Christian) when I can give it to Dukakis or someone else who has a chance?” the Democratic official asked rhetorically.

Christian is hardly the only underdog who confronts that obstacle. In San Diego County’s other legislative and congressional races, heavily favored incumbents have out raised their opponents by lopsided margins ranging as high as 10-to-1.

Invoking a political cliche that is the hope of all long shots, Christian downplays that disparity by noting that “money can influence elections, but voters decide them.”

“It’s tough to be a Democrat in a Republican town,” Christian said. “It’s even tougher to be a Democratic candidate in a Republican Assembly district. But I’m an eternal optimist. I don’t look at the hole; I look at the doughnut.”

In his unsuccessful San Diego City Council race last year, Byron Wear’s fund-raising appeals often drew responses that began, “We’d love to help you, but . . . “

This fall, the “but” has disappeared from those answers and Wear probably will be part of San Diego’s first million-dollar state Assembly campaign as he tries to unseat Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) in the 78th District.

With both sides viewing the Killea-Wear race as one they can win, Republican and Democratic statewide leaders have already made six-figure investments in the campaign. Needing to pick up five seats to control the Assembly, the Republicans have targeted the 78th District--the most heavily Republican Assembly district in the state held by a Democrat. The Democrats have done the same, realizing, as the Republicans do, that the majority party in Sacramento could dictate the reapportionment that will follow the 1990 census.

“When you’re in a tight race that could shape the state’s political future into the next century, you’re going to attract money,” Wear said matter-of-factly.

Indeed, as of Sept. 30, Wear had raised $276,337, nearly three times the $106,514 he spent last year while losing to fellow Republican Ron Roberts, who outspent Wear 3 to 1. Killea, meanwhile, had raised $398,462 and, like Wear, expects to easily surpass $500,000 by Election Day.

Different Circumstances

About half the two candidates’ combined $675,000 contribution total has come from their respective local and statewide party organizations. Much of the rest came from business, labor and special-interest groups.

“I’m the same candidate, but the circumstances are different,” Wear said of his dramatic improvement in fund raising. “I can raise money from more sources and in bigger chunks.”

Notably, Wear is not splitting GOP dollars with another candidate, as he did last year, and also is not subject to the city’s $250-per-person contribution limit and ban on corporate donations.

Equally important, Wear believes, is the fact that he is viewed as a competitive candidate in a competitive race, a perception attributable to his relatively strong showing last year and the Democrats’ slim 46%-41% edge among registered voters in the 78th District. That narrow margin, much smaller than in other districts, has consistently kept Killea in a more politically precarious position than other local state legislators and congressmen since her election in 1982.

“Unlike most other districts, there’s some real uncertainty about the outcome here,” said Wear, a 34-year-old partner in a public relations firm. “People know their money can really make a difference. And that makes a big difference in fund raising. Those phone calls have been a lot easier to make this year.”

That point is vividly illustrated by the actions of the Assembly Republican PAC. In contrast to the group’s good-luck-but-you’re-on-your-own advice to Bentley, ARPAC has already paid for $54,616 in radio ads, polls and other services on Wear’s behalf, a figure expected to rise substantially by next month’s election.

“This is one of those races where we think we can have an impact, so we’re in there in a big way,” said the Republican political-action committee’s executive director Jones. “It’s only a matter of time before the 78th is a Republican district, and this could be the time.”


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