SACRAMENTO — "It's weird out there," a veteran political strategist was saying. "It's very weird. . . . There's been a cultural sea change."
We were talking about the California electorate and its shoulder shrugging at Rep. Mike Huffington's attempt to buy a U.S. Senate seat.
Not too many years ago, if a super-rich candidate--an oilman newly arrived from Texas, no less--had begun throwing his money around trying to purchase a public office, most California voters would have taken offense. That would be undemocratic; an unfair advantage for a multimillionaire. If he couldn't raise money from the community, it was a sign of weakness; he lacked broad support.
Indeed, financing your own race was sort of embarrassing.
At least that was the conventional wisdom. And there was evidence to affirm it.
Art collector-industrialist Norton Simon spent $1.8 million of his own money running for the GOP Senate nomination in 1970 and lost, by 2 to 1, to incumbent George Murphy. William Matson Roth, heir to a steamship fortune, spent about $1 million of it trying to win the 1974 Democratic gubernatorial nomination and finished a distant fourth to Jerry Brown.
But neither Simon nor Roth was as smooth a candidate as Huffington.
In 1992, one year after moving to Santa Barbara from Houston, Huffington won a congressional seat with charm and personal checks totaling $5.2 million. The next summer, he began pouring his money into an effort to capture the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Huffington says he'll spend "around $20 million" by Election Day. The word is he'll go even higher; whatever it takes.
"He's letting it go," says the political strategist, a Republican who asked not to be identified. "He's opening up the floodgates."
Ross Perot conditioned Americans to such political self-indulgence by spending $60 million of his own money on a 1992 protest candidacy for President. Last year, Richard Riordan dug into his own pockets for $6 million to win the Los Angeles mayoral election.
Feinstein used $3 million of her family wealth to seed a $20-million campaign for governor in 1990. But Huffington's check writing is unprecedented for a statewide race. And he has spent effectively. Attacking the incumbent relentlessly with TV ads, the political neophyte now is running a close race after having trailed last March by 30 points.
Huffington will greatly outspend Feinstein. But beyond a financial advantage, there is a tactical benefit to being your own fund-raiser. You don't have to burn up time dialing for dollars. And if you suffer a bad campaign week--as Huffington did before his Thursday night debate with Feinstein--donations don't taper off as political investors get nervous. There's a steady stream of cash.
There's always plenty of money for another ad buy.
What do voters think of this personal spending spree? Most are ambivalent. The rest are split.
The Times Poll last month asked people whether it made them more likely or less likely to vote for Huffington. Their replies: 15% more likely, 20% less likely and 62% "no effect one way or the other." Bankrolling his own campaign was one thing admirers found appealing about Huffington. Conversely, it was the biggest criticism cited by detractors.
I called several of the surveyed voters and asked them to elaborate.
"He's not paid his political dues," said David Powles, 46, a San Luis Obispo psychiatrist. "He's buying his way from one office to the next using his father's money. This is craziness."
Commented Patricia Croce, 49, of Manhattan Beach: "I find it interesting you can buy justice with a better lawyer and you can also buy public office. That's a pity. But it isn't the money that bothers me so much (about Huffington); his self-righteous goodness is cloying."
Others agreed with Huffington that spending his own money made him independent.
"He's buying the election, but I feel better that he's buying it rather than the special interests," said J. D. Carter, 38, co-owner of a water reclamation business in Sonoma County. "It's his issues rather than the issues of special interests."
Asserted Ted Law, 41, of Temple City, who pours concrete: "If he wants to spend his own money, that's his problem. They're all crooks anyway."
So maybe it's not so "weird." Many citizens are disgusted with politics and think Huffington's self-financing scheme can't make things any worse.
And from his perspective, he really had no choice. As an outlander with virtually no public record, hardly anybody else was going to give him money for a Senate race.