High Cost of Campaigning Winnows the Political Field Congress Resumes Finance-Reform Debate, Even as Big-Name Politiciansopt to Quit

Article excerpt

Money, always a big factor in determining elections, has assumed an even greater role as strong man in the 2000 contests - defeating presidential hopefuls before Americans have cast a single primary vote and winnowing the field of candidates even at the House and Senate levels.

So intense are the current demands of fund-raising that seasoned politicians, including incumbents and big-name challengers, are increasingly bowing out early, or deciding not to run at all.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) provided the most recent example of the winnowing power of money, announcing last week that crushing fund-raising demands played a major part in her decision not to run for a vacant US Senate seat. With that decision, she joins a lengthening list of politicians - from incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey to aspiring senator Frankie Sue Del Papa, attorney general of Nevada - who cite the pressure to raise money as one reason they quit before they even got started.

As Congress tomorrow takes up the issue of campaign-finance reform, once again, some analysts say the problem now is not only the influence of money, but also the intimidation factor of having to raise so much from individual donors. The new level of self-winnowing by potential candidates and the degree to which money drives the process are hurting democracy, they say.

"In recent years, more and more experienced candidates are choosing not to seek office, especially Senate seats, because the burdens of fund-raising are too great," says Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and a campaign-finance expert.

Criteria for candidates

One consequence is that voters get fewer quality candidates to choose from, he says. Moreover, those who do end up on the ballot have been recruited in large part because they have personal wealth to back up their campaigns. The number of candidates for Congress who spend $100,000 or more of their own money has increased dramatically, Mr. Corrado adds.

"First and foremost, it's the wallet that's looked at," agrees Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report.

In the 1998 election election cycle, the average winning Senate candidate spent $4.7 million on radio and television advertisements, direct mail, telemarketing, and other campaign costs. All of it must be raised in $1,000 increments from individuals or $5,000 donations from political action committees (PACs).

"It's a humbling process," says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate campaigns for the Cook Political Report. "You're calling total strangers on the phone, introducing yourself, and then hitting them up for a grant. …