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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.
SENATE

Fong Backers Fear Loss of GOP Funds

State Republicans say national party's diversion of cash to races in other states could cost candidate the election in tight battle with Boxer.

October 20, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Once Matt Fong was the toast of Washington, his bid to oust U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer touted as the No. 1 priority of national Republicans eager to unseat a despised Democratic incumbent.

But with just two weeks left in California's neck-and-neck Senate race, the GOP challenger is scrambling for cash to stay competitive, while party strategists in Washington divert dollars to other races they consider more solid political investments.

State Treasurer Fong still stands an even chance of beating Boxer; the two are essentially tied in opinion polls, despite the Democrat's considerable financial edge. And publicly at least, those in the Fong camp profess confidence that they will have every dollar they need to win.

Still, some California Republicans have begun to worry that Fong could fall short on election day for lack of campaign cash--and they fault their own party if the seat slips away.

"It's just unconscionable they can't take a target like this and do everything it takes to put it over the top," said one Sacramento Republican. "At this point, they ought to be playing smash-mouth with their checkbook."

Observers agree that money--or the lack thereof--could prove decisive in the Fong-Boxer contest, one of the closest Senate races in the country.

The result of the sluggish cash flow has been acrimony and insults traded behind the scenes by leading California Republicans and national party insiders, a conflict that belies the routine public professions of harmony and good faith.

The wrangling demonstrates, moreover, the perennial friction between Washington strategists--who see California as but one piece in a 50-state puzzle--and their California counterparts, who believe that the state and its candidates are being forever shortchanged.

Fong may still get the help--namely the $3-million legal maximum--he hopes to receive from the national Republican Party. At this late date, GOP strategists are recalculating their target list and shifting resources on practically a daily basis.

Still, the money has come far more grudgingly than California Republicans expected, particularly after the heroic reception Fong got last summer in a post-primary victory sweep through Washington.

Since then, Fong has disappointed some national Republicans with his anemic fund-raising performance and his failure, for all of Boxer's political problems, to pull away from the embattled incumbent.

"Matt has done a terrifically lousy job of raising money," said a GOP insider. "Why is it that the [Republican Party] needs to make up for the fact he's been such a lousy fund-raiser?"

The most recent federal campaign finance reports show that Boxer has raised about $12 million for her reelection bid, compared with Fong's $7.8 million. Fong, however, started the campaign essentially broke after a tough primary fight against wealthy businessman Darrell Issa. Since then, Boxer has outspent Fong on television more than 2 to 1.

"If Fong loses," said Jennifer Duffy, a campaign analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, "it's fair to say it will be because he was underfunded."

Of the $3 million, Fong had received about $500,000 by the end of last week, sources say, with more in the pipeline. Boxer, in contrast, had gotten about $2.5 million from the Democratic Senate campaign committee, according to a spokesman.

The difference amounts to enough to finance two solid weeks of statewide television advertising, a critical edge in California.

"The Washington power guys don't understand California, they're uncomfortable with California, and they don't know how to play in California," griped one longtime state GOP strategist, "so their natural instinct is to shy away. It's the disconnect you see every four years in presidential campaigns."

But, countered one GOP strategist in Washington, "Every dollar you spend in California could have a serious impact in five smaller states. So it's like a 1-for-5 trade-off. The math is a total no-brainer."

That difference in perspective helps explain the tensions between California Republicans, who have long complained about a net outflow of campaign cash, and party strategists at the national level.

For many California Republicans, there is no higher election priority than ousting Boxer, who is widely reviled within the GOP, the more so because she won office six years ago with a mere 48% of the vote.

But nationally, there are 34 Senate seats up on Nov. 3. Of 18 seats now held by Democrats, seven are considered highly competitive, including Wisconsin, Nevada, Washington state and South Carolina. Republicans also are protecting 16 seats they now hold, including two--North Carolina and New York--that are considered tossups.

A gain of five Senate seats would give the GOP a total of 60, for a theoretically filibuster-proof majority. In that larger scheme of things, a Senate seat from California is no more valuable than, say, a Senate seat from Nevada, Wisconsin or, for that matter, Rhode Island.

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