Money talks, but voters talk back

In the first billion-dollar congressional campaign in history, money talked, but the voters talked back.

By Ellen Miller

Published November 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Money talked on Nov. 3rd, in the first billion-dollar congressional election in history (when total spending by candidates, parties and independent groups is included). But in several key states -- most notably Wisconsin, which reelected campaign-finance reform crusader Sen. Russ Feingold -- the voters talked back. That's the bottom line of the election returns.

Much has been made of the Democrats' five-seat gain in the House of Representatives, but the real winner in Congress was the incumbent party. Ninety-eight percent of House incumbents won reelection, as did 90 percent in the Senate. And with just a few exceptions, the winners spent more money than the losers. In 94.9 percent of races in the House, the victors had the biggest war chest; in the Senate, 93.9 percent of the races were won by the top spender.

And the financial disparities were often huge. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in more than 60 percent of the races in the House, one candidate outspent the other by more than 10-to-1. Together, the Republican and Democratic parties raised record amounts this year -- $458 million reported so far, 55 percent more than in the last midterm election, in 1994. Some Senate candidates spent almost $20 million on their races, while a few House candidates topped $5 million. As with past elections, the biggest sources for this cash were a tiny elite mostly representing business interests: Wall Street, bankers, tobacco, insurance, real estate, oil and gas companies, telephone utilities, and so on.

With results like these, the last thing wealthy special interests and the politicians who do their bidding want to see is reforms that will open up the political process by reducing the role of big money in politics. Fueling public cynicism about the chances for change, they were able to block even the modest proposals for campaign finance reform that surfaced in the last Congress. But out in the states, there are numerous signs that opponents of reform are playing with fire.

The biggest news for reformers was the upset reelection of Wisconsin Sen. Feingold, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold reform legislation that was defeated in the Senate. Feingold chose to play by the rules and values embodied in his bill, despite the fact that it put him at a death-defying political disadvantage. He ran for reelection with a self-imposed limit on how much he would spend ($1 per voter in his state) and vocally refused efforts by his own party to spend soft money on his behalf. Republican Mitch McConnell, the leading opponent of campaign finance reform in the U.S. Senate, and the man who controlled the purse strings of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, made no bones about trying to take his arch-nemesis out. "Don't worry about campaign finance reform. Feingold's going to be dead meat by Christmas," he told another GOP senator.

As much as $2 million in soft money-funded ads savaging Feingold were dumped into the state. But the scrappy senator turned that fact into a winning issue, saying that the key question in the race was "whether we can really have a system where out-of-state interests can come in and essentially try to purchase a Senate seat." In the last week of the campaign, undecided voters rejected the big-money assault, going for Feingold by more than 3-to-1, and he narrowly won reelection.

But Feingold's wasn't the only race where a candidate's campaign finance profile made a difference. In North Carolina, Sen. Lauch Faircloth endured a barrage of media stories this summer detailing the favors he did for campaign contributors. Headlines like "Senator for Sale" fueled voter disenchantment with the Republican incumbent, who had stood with McConnell in voting against campaign finance reform. His Democratic opponent, John Edwards, a newcomer to politics who refused PAC contributions and attacked the role of special interests in campaigns, rolled to a surprise victory on Tuesday. And in the biggest surprise of election night, Reform Party gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura made much of his lack of support from moneyed interests, going so far as to run a TV commercial showing a Ventura pro wrestling doll beating up on "Evil Special Interest Man." Ventura benefited from a Minnesota law giving him limited public financing while capping his opponents' overall spending. He has said he favors full public financing of major-party candidates who take no private money.

Perhaps the best campaign finance reform news came from ballot initiative victories in Arizona and Massachusetts, which showed that, given a real opportunity to register their disgust with the status quo, voters support sweeping reform. By margins of 51 percent in Arizona, the home state of Barry Goldwater, and 66 percent in Massachusetts, citizens adopted "Clean Money, Clean Elections" proposals -- voluntary campaign finance systems in which candidates who agree to take no or little private money and agree to spending limits receive full and equal amounts of public financing for their campaigns. Unlike more incremental reform proposals, these new laws will substantially block special interest influence, limit campaign spending, free candidates from the money chase and put voters back in the driver's seat.

It's important to note how broad the support for real reform runs. In both Arizona and Massachusetts, coalitions of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, business people and labor leaders, came together to push for the Clean Money, Clean Election initiatives. Including Maine, which was first to enact a Clean Money system in 1996, and Vermont, whose legislature embraced it in 1997, there are now four states -- large and small, east and west, liberal and conservative -- that have embraced the idea that public officials should be elected with public funds, instead of being beholden to private, special interest donors.

Support for campaign reform also showed up in other ballot questions: in Florida, where voters reinforced the state's existing system of public financing by putting it into the state constitution; in Suffolk County on Long Island, N.Y., where two-thirds of the voters backed a referendum that will give candidates who voluntarily abide by spending limits substantial public matching funds; and in Akron, Ohio, where religious groups championed a successful initiative to limit private contributions to candidates to $100 and to cap how much they can raise from outside the city.

No review of the impact of the campaign finance issue would be complete without noting Sen. McConnell's monomaniacal opposition to any whiff of reform support within his own party -- something that may have doomed two Republican Senate candidates. In Washington state, Linda Smith lost to incumbent Democrat Patty Murray, hindered by a lack of funds. Because Smith has been a vocal supporter of political reform as a member of the House of Representatives, she got no support from McConnell's NRSC. And in South Carolina, where Bob Inglis narrowly lost to incumbent Democrat Fritz Hollings, there are reports that the NRSC again held back because McConnell was offended by Inglis' principled refusal to seek PAC contributions.

All of these results show that the issue of campaign finance reform is alive and kicking. No more can it be said that no one has ever won or lost a political campaign because of their position on the issue. Nor can anyone still doubt the viability of Clean Money campaign finance reform. The new conventional wisdom must be that it is members of Congress -- not campaign finance reformers -- who are out of touch with the sentiments of voters.

Ellen Miller

Ellen S. Miller is executive director of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to comprehensive campaign finance reform.

MORE FROM Ellen Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

John Edwards Patty Murray