Michael Huffington, a wealthy Santa Barbara Republican seeking office for the first time Nov. 3, has gone on a spending spree that is unparalleled in the history of American congressional campaigns.
Huffington has spent a record-shattering $4.4 million--95% of it his own money--in his bid to win a 22nd District seat representing Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. He spent about $3.5 million in his June primary victory over veteran Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino.
Huffington faces Democratic Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gloria Ochoa next week. She has mounted a spirited campaign in the Republican-leaning district but must overcome Huffington's seven-month onslaught of sophisticated television, radio, videocassette and direct-mail ads and a telephone campaign that has made him almost a household name there.
In a year when the public's low esteem for Congress might seem to devalue a seat in the House, some have called Huffington the congressional equivalent of independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, who says he plans to spend $60 million of his own money on his campaign.
To put Huffington's largess in perspective, consider:
* The previous record for a congressional campaign was $2.6 million spent by then-Republican Rep. Jack Kemp in a 1986 New York reelection race.
* This year, Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), the fourth-ranking Democratic leader in the House, who faces an intense challenge, is second among big spenders in California House races with a little more than $1.2 million as of Oct. 15.
* Huffington's expenditures have already topped the $4.1-million total spent by the average U.S. Senate incumbent up for reelection in 1990. The senators' average spending covers an entire six-year term.
Indeed, Huffington's total advertising budget, gleaned from recent reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, was $2,938,419--rivaling the amounts spent by California's four U.S. Senate candidates through Oct. 15. Huffington has paid more than $1.9 million for television and radio advertising and more than $946,000 for mailed advertising.
Marty Wilson, a veteran political operative who is managing the California Bush-Quayle campaign, said he was "flabbergasted" by Huffington's spending, even though he briefly served as the candidate's campaign consultant late last year.
"It's just sort of a curiosity," Wilson said. "People go: 'Why is this seat worth that?' But to him it is. And it's his money. So God bless him."
Critics of the campaign finance system are not so forgiving: They say Huffington's multimillion-dollar candidacy exemplifies the need for reform.
Huffington defends the spending as being necessary to level the playing field in the primary against incumbent Lagomarsino, who had served in city, state and federal office since 1958.
"I was running against someone in the primary who had been in office for 34 years and I had zero percent name recognition," Huffington said through a spokeswoman. "Much of the money was spent to get my name recognition up to over 92% and to get my message out. I'm not spending so much in the general" election campaign.
Much like Perot, Huffington also has sought to defuse the issue of his unprecedented personal spending by touting himself as beholden to no one. He has made reforming Congress a cornerstone of his campaign, while running as a conservative businessman who also favors abortion rights and opposes new oil drilling off the California coast.
Huffington, 45, tall and trim, has engineering and economics degrees from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard. He served briefly in the Reagan Administration as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense for negotiations policy and owns a film production company. His Greek-born wife, Arianna, is a best-selling author and socialite who has been active in the campaign.
Huffington's wealth is derived from a merchant bank he started and his share of the family's Houston oil, gas and real estate firm that was sold to Taiwan interests in 1990. His father, Roy M. Huffington, made a fortune through natural gas interests in Indonesia.
The elder Huffington, a member of the Republican National Committee's elite "Team 100" who contribute $100,000 or more to the party, was rewarded when President Bush appointed him ambassador to Austria in 1990. Fortune magazine called him one of America's richest men.
On the campaign trail, Huffington's financial pace has slowed since the primary, when he spent $96 per vote. Still, his $960,193 outlay between July 1 and Oct. 15 was nearly twice the total spent by the average House candidate in open races in 1990. It is also more than double the $454,334 that Democratic opponent Ochoa spent by Oct. 15.
"People are offended by the notion that someone is trying to buy their vote," said Ochoa, a chemist and lawyer who aspires to become the first Filipino-American in Congress. "They are offended with the notion that someone can hit them with information--whether it be positive or negative--with such frequency and such impact to brainwash them into voting for them."
Huffington responded: "That's an old cliche for those who are being outspent. Votes aren't for sale."
Huffington has assembled a high-powered campaign team--prompting speculation that he views the House as merely a first electoral step. Such ruminations that he may already have an eye on a U.S. Senate bid are bolstered by his vow that he will abide by a self-imposed term limit even if the six-year House cap on the ballot in California this year is defeated.
Huffington's nationally prominent media consultant Don Ringe handled Kansas Sen. Bob Dole's media relations in the 1988 Republican presidential primary. Ringe's firm has been paid $423,954 for creating and producing campaign ads. Houston-based pollster David Hill is also polling for the Bush-Quayle campaign in Texas and has managed various statewide campaigns. His firm has received $164,574.
Huffington's general consultant is the respected Sacramento firm of Huckaby Rodriquez Gilliard Inc. Joe Rodota, a veteran operative who has worked in Gov. Pete Wilson's campaigns, has performed opposition and issue research. And Dale E. Laine Jr. temporarily left his position as Houston regional director for Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) to run the general election campaign.
Nevertheless, Huffington dismisses speculation that he already has his eye on higher office: "I'm only looking at Nov. 3, 1992."
Huffington has been able to spend unlimited reserves of his own money because the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 overturned a $25,000 limit on the amount that most House candidates could give to their own campaigns. The court also struck down post-Watergate spending limits of $70,000 per election for House candidates. It ruled that campaign funds were equivalent to speech; therefore both limits violated the 1st Amendment.
"The ability of candidates to come in and buy a race really stands the notion of equality of participation in elections on its head," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington research group. "If you have to be a millionaire or a billionaire to participate in politics, we'll have very few people with the ability to do that."
Times researcher Murielle Gamache contributed to this story.
A Costly Campaign
Republican Michael Huffington has spent a record $4.4 million in his campaign against Democrat Gloria Ochoa for the seat in the 22nd Congressional District. Here is a breakdown of both candidates' expenditures.
Huffington Ochoa AMOUNT % OF AMOUNT % OF CATEGORY SPENT TOTAL SPENT TOTAL *Total overhead $787,548 17.91 $160,769 35.39 *Fund raising 32,839 0.75 73,515 16.18 *Polling 215,347 4.90 41,000 9.02 *Advertising* 2,938,419 66.84 77,293 17.01 *Other activities 399,248 9.08 87,179 19.19 *Entertainment, constituent gifts 0 0 300 0.07 *Donations** 3,082 0.07 2,500 0.55 *Unitemized costs 19,982 0.45 11,778 2.59 *Total expenses 4,396,463 454,334
* Includes payments for electronic media, print media and mail ads.
** Includes donations to other candidates, party organizations, charities, community groups.
Source: Times analysis of campaign spending reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Contribution refunds have been excluded from this analysis.