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NEWS ANALYSIS : Huffington and Others Say $30 Million Was Well Spent

November 13, 1994|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty million dollars will pay for 700 new Border Patrol agents. Or a 737 jetliner. Or 1.2 million copies of the best-selling "Book of Virtues." Or two months of water usage for the entire city of Los Angeles.

But all that money apparently could not buy a U.S. Senate seat in California. Not this year anyway.

After sinking more than a third of his estimated $70-million oil fortune into last week's nip-and-tuck Senate election, Mike Huffington retreated to his Santa Barbara ocean view estate with a 44% unfavorable rating and a political bruising. By the national media he was deemed variously a "cipher," a "Martian candidate," an "empty suit" and a "rich twit." Esquire magazine said: "Michael Huffington could've bought a bad Picasso."

To hear Huffington tell it, however, his millions were expended wisely as he came within 123,610 votes of toppling Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a popular Democrat who earlier this year enjoyed the highest approval rating of any elected official in the state.

"It was very worth it," Huffington said of the most expensive congressional race in history.

Many political experts agree. They say Huffington parlayed his vast financial resources into a highly effective--albeit ugly--campaign that featured an unprecedented blitz of negative advertising. By any standard, this was quite an accomplishment for a native Texan who began the campaign virtually unknown to the public, had few credentials in civic life, and only recently relocated to California.

"I don't think he could have done anything much differently," said Steven P. Erie, a specialist in California and urban politics at UC San Diego. "I hate to say it, but I think it was money well spent. He came as close as he possibly could."

The outcome remains so close that Feinstein has yet to claim victory and Huffington has not conceded defeat. But with 500,000 absentee ballots still uncounted, Feinstein's lead is nearly impossible for Huffington to overcome. Huffington won the absentee ballots already counted statewide by about 6%, according to The Times exit poll, and to win Huffington would need to carry the outstanding ballots by a margin of more than 20%.

In any close campaign, there is second-guessing over whether different decisions about strategy or tactics would have resulted in another outcome. But the lesson of the race may well be that wealthy candidates can buy a major election in a sprawling state like California, according to a wide range of interviews.

"If only Huffington had spent another $10 million he would have won," said Tom Epstein, the Clinton Administration's California liaison.

But according to one source, Huffington decided to stop writing checks with only one week left in the race as his highly paid team of Republican consultants presented options for further spending. The 46-year-old Republican congressman told his staff: "That's it. I've put my last nickel into the campaign," said a Huffington consultant who requested anonymity.

Huffington spent $28.3 million of his fortune and spent about $30 million overall in his bid to defeat Feinstein. The previous spending record for any congressional seat was $17 million in 1990 by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

The level of spending enabled Huffington to make it a close race, but also cost him some votes as Feinstein repeatedly attacked him for it. A Times exit survey of voters on Election Day found that 28% of Feinstein backers said they supported the San Francisco Democrat because Huffington was trying to buy the election.

Feinstein, one of the most successful political fund-raisers in the country, spent about $12 million to win reelection. At a West Los Angeles rally Monday, she vowed to do everything in her power to pass campaign reform laws that put a ceiling on spending levels. Feinstein said that "if anything has taught me that campaigns are not right in this land, it has been this campaign."

The race was never supposed to be so expensive. Shortly after announcing his Senate bid last year, Huffington said he planned to spend about $5 million of his own money and raise an additional $10 million in contributions. As the campaign wore on, Huffington's predictions of his personal contributions grew to $10 million, then to $15 million and finally, it seemed, to whatever amount was necessary. He also ended up raising a relatively paltry $1.4 million from supporters.

"I don't think any of us conceived that we'd be spending the kind of money we did," said Ken Khachigian, a Huffington campaign strategist. "I don't think Mike conceived it, either."

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