Off-Year Elections Get Huge GOP InfusionBy Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 1997; Page A01
The Republican Party is pouring millions of dollars into this year's three major off-year elections, far outpacing the efforts of the debt-burdened Democratic Party.
For the Democrats, the trend is disconcerting and a possible ominous sign of what's to come next year when hundreds of House, Senate and governors seats will be up for grabs.
Because of the vagaries of campaign finance reporting deadlines, amounts are difficult to determine precisely, but GOP spending has far outpaced that of Democrats in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races as well as the special election to fill the New York congressional seat vacated by Susan Molinari (R) last summer.
Republicans outraising and outspending Democrats is hardly a new phenomenon, but the scale of the imbalance this year has rattled some nerves. The Democratic National Committee has been strapped by a $15 million debt, largely the result of legal expenses related to the ongoing campaign finance scandal. In addition, the scandal has made fund-raising more difficult, especially for Democrats, and that has hindered the ability of national and state parties to work on behalf of candidates.
Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, professed Thursday to be unconcerned about the dollar gap. "Republicans always outspend us," he told a news briefing, "but I don't think there's enough money in the world for the Republicans to stem the tide."
Others are less sanguine. "We haven't ever been at this much of a disadvantage," said a senior Democratic congressional staffer, who asked not to be identified. "Nobody has any money to do anything."
In Virginia, which does not have individual campaign contribution limits, the national Republican Party has contributed more than $2 million, to the campaign of James S. Gilmore III. More than $1 million of that came in just since mid-October. National Democratic committees, on the other hand, have put about $125,000 directly into Donald S. Beyer Jr.'s race.
In New Jersey—where Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) is engaged in a close race with state Sen. James McGreevey (D)—the Republican National Committee paid $760,000 for an "issue advocacy" ad aimed urging voters to remember the tax-hiking, welfare-boosting days of past Democratic governors. While Democratic leaders, including President Clinton, have raised money on his behalf, the DNC has not put up money for television ads to counter the Republican effort.
In New York's 13th congressional district race, the RNC has paid $791,000 for 30-second issue ads that attack Democratic candidate Eric Vitaliano, but do not mention Republican candidate Vito Fossella by name. Because the DNC did not mount its own effort, Vitaliano was forced to finance ads out of his own campaign coffers—$280,000 for 10-second television spots defending his voting record in the state Assembly.
"This year, the Republicans have an enormous advantage in all of the key races," said University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato, who has studied all three races. "The Democrats just haven't proven able to compete."
Democratic campaign officials acknowledge the disparity but try to play down its significance. They accuse the GOP of trying to buy elections. And, they argue, Democrats will win with good, old-fashioned footwork and volunteerism. For instance, in New Jersey and New York, organized labor has played a vital role not only in raising money for McGreevey and Vitaliano, but in helping knock on doors and work phones.
"That the Republicans are throwing money at these races really shows their desperation," said DNC spokesman Melissa Bonney. Democrats will "win on the basis of their ideas, not money that's thrown into the race."
Bonney pointed out that President Clinton won last year even though Republicans outspent Democrats by tens of millions of dollars.
Some Democratic consultants and pollsters have expressed more concern.
"If you don't have gasoline, the car won't go," said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman. "You have to have money to run a political campaign."
In at least one race, New York's special congressional election, the money appears to be making a difference in favor of Fossella, a New York City councilman. Private polls suggest Fossella has moved slightly ahead of Vitaliano in what had been a dead heat until recently. And even Democratic campaign officials in Washington acknowledge that their candidate has been damaged.
By law, the Republican Party would only be able to directly contribute $63,000 to Fossella's campaign. But they avoided that limit by directly financing the issue advertising, which portrays Vitaliano as a tax-and-spend liberal, without telling voters how to cast their ballots. The national GOP also just gave almost $400,000 to the New York state party for get-out-the-vote efforts, absentee ballot initiatives and mailings attacking Vitaliano.
"We are countering them the best way we can, through our campaign," said Vitaliano spokesman Sid Voorakkara.
The state Democratic Party also is sending out a last-minute, $150,000 direct mail on behalf of Vitaliano. Most of the money will likely come from organized labor.
The effect of national Republican spending in Virginia is more difficult to determine. One thing is certain: As in-state donor sources have become tapped out on both sides in recent weeks, the infusion of GOP money has helped Gilmore's campaign keep humming along.
The money has gone directly into his campaign, which has produced ads touting Gilmore's promise to cut a state tax on cars. Meanwhile, Beyer has borrowed about $400,000 to compete in the final days of the election.
"Both parties would like to help their candidates," said Dick Leggitt, Gilmore's media consultant. "But they're having some problems of their own making."
In New Jersey, the issue ads don't appears to have given Whitman a boost. In fact, some polls suggest the race has gotten closer in recent weeks.
Democrats have had to rely largely on Clinton and Vice President Gore, who have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Vitaliano, McGreevey and Beyer. For instance, Clinton and Gore helped Beyer raise about $1 million. But former vice president Dan Quayle, former president George Bush and actor Charlton Heston helped Gilmore raise about $1.5 million at various fund-raisers. Gilmore is so flush with funds that late last week he began giving money to other Republicans in the state.
Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company