Costly House Race Set in Land of Poverty

Times Staff Writers

Jim Humphreys' dad was a garbage man. Today, Humphreys is a multimillionaire -- as well as a fiercely liberal Democratic trial lawyer trying to win a U.S. House seat in West Virginia.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's dad was a beloved former congressman, three-term governor and a crook, who served three years in federal prison for corruption after he left the governor's mansion.

Now Humphreys and Capito, a housewife who two years ago became West Virginia's first Republican in Congress in almost two decades, stand on the brink of history.

Taken together, they have run what may end up as the most expensive U.S. House campaign in history -- in one of the nation's poorest states.

Already, Federal Election Commission records show that the race to control this sleepy and diverse district of coal miners, farmers and Washington-area commuters is this year's costliest House race: almost $9 million spent since January 2001.

And by the time the final tallies are in for a race that also will help determine which party controls the House, the contest's bottom line is likely to exceed the record $11 million spent in a San Gabriel Valley-based district in 2000, when Democrat Adam B. Schiff of Pasadena defeated then-incumbent Rep. James E. Rogan, a Republican.

These figures only account for the money raised directly by the candidates. It does not include additional money spent by national parties and special interests on their behalf. Nationally, the two parties have raised more than $800 million, a record amount for a non-presidential election year.

Underscoring the importance of the West Virginia race, President Bush is to make a campaign stop today at the Charleston Civic Center in the heart of the district in hope of providing Capito an eleventh-hour boost.

It will be Bush's second trip in four months to a geographically broad, mostly impoverished and largely ignored sliver of West Virginia. Vice President Dick Cheney, his wife, Lynne, and three Cabinet secretaries also have stumped for Capito during the last six months.

For many analysts, the lavish political spending in so poor a place defines the high stakes in Tuesday's vote. For others, it spotlights the need for the new campaign finance laws that will kick in the morning after the polls close.

West Virginia ranks second in the nation in the percentage of people living in poverty; it tops the list of states where children live below the poverty line.

"It is an anomaly to have that much money spent in West Virginia," said Allan S. Hammock, who teaches political science at West Virginia University. "But the stakes are high."

Added Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst: "This district is a microcosm of the high spending taking place in the relative handful of truly competitive districts across the country this year."

So far, most pundits give Capito, 49, a slight edge.

This year's race is a rematch from 2000, when Capito edged Humphreys. That election also ranked among the most expensive House races, with spending by the two candidates totaling $8.2 million.

Then, as now, Humphreys' deep pockets were the key to setting it apart.

Humphreys, 53, amassed a personal fortune by winning huge compensation claims for victims of asbestos poisoning. FEC records show he spent $6.9 million of his own money on the last election.

Already, he has spent nearly $6 million more on this election, more than $2 million of it on advertising.

In contrast, Capito's FEC filings show she has spent a total of $2 million, most of it raised through so-called "hard money" -- regulated contributions from individuals and political action committees.

But Capito has been the beneficiary of millions more dollars in "soft money," largely unregulated contributions that corporations, unions and individuals can make to political parties and special interest groups.

Such soft money will be illegal after next week's elections under the campaign reform act that Bush signed into law earlier this year. Capito voted in favor of the measure.

In the final soft-money blitz, though, the National Republican Congressional Committee alone has ponied up more than $2 million for pro-Capito television and radio spots.

NRCC officials say their spending is an attempt to offset the ubiquitous Humphreys, who has used his wealth to crisscross the district on chartered executive jets and saturate the state's television and radio airwaves with more than $2 million in commercials in the last three months alone.

To reach a rich voter reservoir in the state's eastern panhandle, where the last election was decided, Humphreys' ads are even running in the costly Washington market. One of Humphreys' ad executives conceded: "There are people across the Maryland suburbs who are saying, 'Who the hell is Jim Humphreys, and why should I care?' "

On balance, concluded one Republican operative, "the people of West Virginia are just numb" from an onslaught of political ads that generally have been as ill-mannered as they have been well-funded.

"Everyone is fed up with the negative campaigning by both sides," agreed Mike Agee, chairman of the West Virginia Manufacturers Assn. "Too much money is being spent on downgrading one's opponent."

Each side blames the other for the negativity and the escalating spending.

NRCC Communications Director Steve Schmidt said his group's efforts for Capito are needed to counter Humphreys' spending levels, which he labeled "obscene."

"Jim Humphreys," Schmidt added, "is living proof of the old adage that it's easy to separate a fool from his money."

Humphreys' strategists counter that the NRCC's spending on the race is pushing Humphreys to write more checks to his campaign.

"We just keep raising the stakes on each other," said Jason Ralston, senior vice president of GMMB, the Washington-based Democratic strategic communications company that is handling Humphreys' advertising campaign.

Almost lost amid the daily charges and countercharges over spending are the issues. Humphreys has pledged to protect Social Security, bring down the soaring price of prescription drugs and target corporate corruption.

Capito has defended her record as a moderate Republican and attacked Humphreys for supporting laws that have raised taxes on Social Security benefits.

Ultimately, most analysts say the outcome could well come down to something as simple as the two candidates' affability ratings among West Virginians.

Most also agreed, though, that the outcome is likely to be an accurate barometer of the nation's mood.

"My guess is that [Capito] wins unless there is a fairly strong national trend to the Democrats," said Neil Berch, a West Virginia University political scientist.

"If Humphreys wins, I think the Democrats regain the House."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Most money spent

This year's most expensive U.S. House races:

1. West Virginia District 2 -- $8,771,863

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) vs. Jim Humphreys (D)

2. Maryland District 8 -- $6,814,023

Rep. Constance A. Morella (R) vs. Chris Van Hollen (D)

3. Georgia District 11 -- $5,948,101

Open seat; Roger Kahn (D) vs. Phil Gingrey (R)

* 4. Georgia District 7 -- $5,492,833

Rep. John Linder (R) vs. Michael Berlon (D)

* 5. Michigan District 15 -- $5,027,664

Rep. John D. Dingell (D) vs. Martin Kaltenbach

**6. Massachusetts District 9 -- $4,924,798

Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D), unopposed

7. Connecticut District 5 -- $4,841,187

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R) vs. Jim Maloney (D)

8. Florida District 24 -- $4,694,317

Open seat; Tom Feeney (R) vs. Harry Jacobs (D)

9. New Hampshire District 1 -- $4,642,321

Open seat; Jeb Bradley (R) vs. Martha Fuller Clark (D)

* 10. Illinois District 5 -- $4,246,897

Open seat: Rahm Emanuel (D) vs. Mark Augusti (R)

* Most spending occurred in competitive primary races.

** Includes spending in special election, following the death in May 2001 of Rep. Joe Moakley (D)

Sources: The Center for Responsive Politics and U.S. Federal Election Commission filings through Oct. 24

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Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 589 words Type of Material: Correction Congress -- A story Thursday in Section A about the House race in West Virginia incorrectly gave Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's age as 49. She is 48.
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