WASHINGTON — Long before a single ballot was counted last Tuesday, California's numerous million-dollar Senate and House election campaigns made big winners of political consultants from here to Hollywood. This payoff was distinctly bipartisan.
More than $34 million--half of all the money that had been spent on two U.S. Senate races and 52 House contests as of Oct. 14--was funneled through these pollsters, fund-raisers, media consultants, direct mail specialists and strategists.
The simultaneous U.S. Senate races, combined with record-setting spending in an extraordinary number of hotly contested House contests, made the Golden State even more of a bonanza than usual for behind-the-scenes political consultants this year.
"There probably is no precedent for it," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia who wrote a book titled "The Rise of Political Consultants." "It's big-money politics taken to a new power."
This spending spree reflects the professionalization of modern politics, in which candidates turn themselves over to well-paid handlers who do everything from crafting the overall strategy and message to getting the voters to the polls.
The major party candidates for California's two Senate seats spent $15.4 million through consultants and House candidates spent $13 million. Democratic and Republican committees spent another $5.7 million, mostly for television ads for Senate candidates.
By far, the largest overall expenditure went for television advertising, primarily in the Senate races and for Republican Michael Huffington's record-shattering $4.4 million campaign to win a House seat in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, according to a computer-assisted Times study of records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The reports assessed for this story contain the most recent available information; millions more were spent by the campaigns in the final 2 1/2-week sprint down the homestretch.
Totals include $19.5 million for television and radio ads; $3.9 million for direct-mail fund raising; $3.1 million for fund-raising events; more than $600,000 for telephone fund raising; $2.4 million for voter persuasion mail; $1.6 million for general consultants; $1.7 million for polling; and $352,820 for research, much of it poring over the records and personal histories of a candidate's opponent.
Much of these payments include expenses associated with production, printing, postage, telephone bills or other costs. Consultants typically receive a percentage of the spending as a fee.
The media consultants who create, produce and place television and radio ads usually receive 10% to 15% of the spending total as their fee.
"If California wasn't already known as the Golden State, consultants would have dubbed it that," Sabato said.
Among the big winners was David Bienstock, president of Target Enterprises and Bienstock Enterprises in Hollywood. Bienstock's firms were the media buyers and strategists for Republican Sen. John Seymour and GOP Senate nominee Bruce Herschensohn, who both were defeated.
Bienstock's firms also worked for Huffington in his $3.5-million primary campaign. Overall, the companies did 18 campaigns nationwide this year.
Target billed more than $6 million for its services, largely for television ad buys for Seymour, Herschensohn and Huffington, and Bienstock Enterprises billed nearly $1.4 million, largely for Seymour as of Oct. 14. More than $4 million of these costs was picked up by the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Refusing to disclose specifics, Bienstock said the firms received more than the customary 3% to 5% fee paid for such services because it also did media planning and strategy.
"It's a tremendous boon," Bienstock said, noting how unusual it is for one consultant to do two Senate campaigns in the same state simultaneously. But, at the same time, he noted that the Senate candidates spent far less than the 1990 gubernatorial nominees.
Bienstock, who does primarily Republican and ballot initiative campaigns, handled Pete Wilson's media buys two years ago. Wilson spent $25 million and Democrat Dianne Feinstein nearly $20 million during the 1990 primary and general elections--nearly twice as much as any of this year's Senate candidates.
Despite efforts by many candidates this year to position themselves as political outsiders, many consulting firms that engineered their campaigns are well-known mainstays of the Eastern political Establishment.
Democratic Sen.-elect Barbara Boxer's campaign had channeled nearly $3.5 million through Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Grunwald & Associates. The Washington firm acted as her general consultant and media buyer. Partner Jim Margolis focused on Boxer's campaign; principals Frank Greer and Mandy Grunwald were busy with President-elect Bill Clinton's campaign.