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Political Gifts, Fueled by PACs, Continue to Soar

April 07, 1986|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Contributions to Senate and House campaigns are continuing to soar, according to a Times analysis of candidate reports, and most incumbents are widening their already enormous financial advantage over challengers.

Fueling the spending spiral are special-interest contributions from the political action committees (PACs) of business, labor and ideological groups. As fast as overall campaign contributions are growing, PAC contributions are growing even faster.

In California, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who spent $2.8 million in the 1980 election, plans to pour at least $6 million into his hotly contested reelection effort this year. California also has a pack of well-financed Republican challengers, and party officials say whoever wins the June 3 primary could spend as much as Cranston.

Elsewhere, incumbents have used their huge campaign war chests to scare off would-be opponents. In New York, former Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman dropped a planned challenge to Republican Sen. Alphonse M. D'Amato, who built up a cash surplus of $4.2 million during 1985.

"I am not personally wealthy," she said, "and his head start means I would have to spend most of my time raising money instead of raising issues."

Similarly, Democratic Reps. Les AuCoin and Ron Wyden of Oregon declined to challenge Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), whose campaign coffers were bursting with $3.5 million as 1986 began.

Altogether, senators running for reelection this year raised five times as much money as challengers in 1985, up from the 4-1 advantage enjoyed by incumbents seeking reelection in 1984. In the House, where the incumbents' advantage was 3-1 two years ago, it is now 4-1.

$54.6 Million in Gifts

Contributions to all Senate candidates totaled $54.6 million last year, according to recently released Federal Election Commission records. That is nearly four times greater than in 1979, the last comparable pre-election year for the group of 34 Senate seats up for grabs in November, when continued Republican control will be at stake.

And House candidates collected $58.6 million in 1985, an increase of 52% in just two years.

With the elections seven months away, most candidates have yet to begin spending heavily. But as more and more candidates spend more and more money on television advertising, mail and opinion polls, total spending could reach $10 million in at least three of this year's Senate races and exceed $5 million in five others. The number of million-dollar House races this year will easily top the 1984 record of 35.

Special-interest money, already substantial in previous elections, is playing an increasingly significant role this year. PAC money, which constituted 15% of Senate candidates' receipts in 1979, shot up to 24% in 1985. And among House candidates, PACs have contributed more than $1 of every $3 that has been collected. PAC contributions totaled $33.4 million in 1985.

PACs' Generosity

PACs are bestowing the overwhelming bulk of their generosity on incumbents. Many House Democrats, cashing in on their leadership status on key committees, now receive more than half of their funds from PACs instead of from individual constituents back home. Last year, incumbents received 96% of the $20.1 million in PAC donations to House candidates and 74% of the $9.9 million given to Senate candidates.

Why this sharp tilt toward incumbents? Pure pragmatism, PAC managers say. PACs, whose ultimate goal is influencing legislation, want to back winners, and incumbents usually win elections. In 1984, 90% of the senators and 95% of the House members who sought reelection were returned to office.

"PACs seldom give challengers a break," said David Cohen, co-director of the Advocacy Institute, a citizens group seeking tightened limits on PAC giving. "That's why Republicans are angry that business PACs contribute to Democrats with seniority in the House" instead of to Republican challengers.

Stoking That Anger

Aggressively stoking that anger is Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who makes this bald pitch to PACs: "We're going to be the majority party (in the House) for a long time, so it doesn't make good business sense to give to Republicans."

Not only do incumbents raise more money than their opponents, but they generally line up broad financial support well in advance of the next election, before their challengers have time to knock on doors. Some incumbents even raid the other party.

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