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Congress Races May Set Spending Record : Campaigns: Panel predicts candidates for state's 52 House and two Senate seats will spend at least $115 million.

January 22, 1992|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Providing further proof of the state's political muscle, California candidates running for Congress this year will spend a record $115 million, according to projections by the Federal Election Commission.

The $115-million estimate, which FEC officials consider conservative, would represent the largest amount of money ever raised in a single state during a two-year election cycle.

"The state of California is going to be flooded with political money this year," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause in Washington, a public interest group that has pushed for campaign finance reform. "We don't need further evidence that the present system is out of control, but if we did there would be no better example than what is about to happen in California."

The FEC recently researched its records to measure California's "growing importance and dominance in politics," said spokesman Scott Moxley. Calling the amount "staggering," Moxley said the $115 million will make up about $1 of every $5 to be spent in all House and Senate campaigns nationwide this year. That is double the figure--$1 in every $10 nationally--that was spent in California a decade ago, he said.

California has long been recognized in Washington as a fund-raising paradise for prominent senators and House members from other states who relish traveling to California to rake in campaign contributions.

"In California, we've had a negative drain," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I am particularly concerned that so many outside political players come into the state and raise money and we never see it."

While California is likely to continue to serve as an export state in campaign funds, competition for political dollars this year is expected to be particularly tough.

For the first time since the founding of California, the state's two U. S. Senate seats are up for grabs in the same year because of the resignation of Republican Pete Wilson to become governor and the retirement of Democrat Alan Cranston. Reapportionment has added seven seats to the state's House delegation, raising the total to 52. The next largest delegations--New York with 31 seats and Texas with 30--lag far behind.

The four Senate finalists from California's June primary will spend about $40 million leading up to the November general election, the FEC estimated. They also are expected to receive $2.4 million each from the Republican or Democratic national Senate committees.

As many as 20 competitive House races will generate another $40 million in campaign spending, the FEC predicted. The remaining $35 million would be spent by candidates in the other 32 House races and the primary campaigns for the two U.S. Senate seats.

The $115 million, would be more than the campaign spending for 1990 House and Senate races in the next six largest states combined, the FEC said. The figure does not include spending in state Assembly and Senate races or so-called "soft money" funds that pay for such statewide campaign activities as voter registration drives.

California congressional candidates spent $30 million in 1990, when there was no Senate race, $53.8 million in 1988 and $51.6 million in 1986, FEC records show.

The beneficiaries of the 1992 California spending will be political consultants hired by candidates and the media, and television stations, which charge hefty rates for political advertising.

"It's not clear whether there is going to be any room on television for programming during September and October this year," said Common Cause's Wertheimer. "If the citizens of California don't have a headache from political ads by the time this explosion takes place, they will be very fortunate."

The losers, according to public interest advocates, will be the voters.

"It is clear that money in California is the first and primary need," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "Setting the expectation of $1 million for a competitive House seat discriminates against a huge number of people who may be perfectly qualified for these offices but couldn't imagine raising that kind of money."

Miller said that donors who "bundle" large sums of $1,000 contributions will have far more influence on national policy and overall legislative decision-making than the average constituent. "The vast majority of those givers do not give because of a love of democracy," she said. "They give because they want access or influence with the candidate they have supported."

Several political consultants said, however, that the money spent to elect 52 House members and two senators in California is less than the advertising budgets major U. S. firms use to promote their products. The Wendy's restaurant chain, for example, spent $119.8 million in national advertising last year to sell hamburgers.

"The flow of money" is far more significant than the amount, said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), ranking member of the House Administration Committee. "I think people's disgust is that they feel they are being acted upon instead of being a part of the process, especially when you have to spend lots of money."

Thomas has pushed for passage of a Republican campaign finance package that would require candidates to raise a majority of funds from within their districts. His proposal, Thomas said, would force candidates to solicit the support of constituents as part of campaigning, instead of dialing for dollars among outsiders.

"People have begun to think that money is the end in politics rather than the means," he said.

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