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CAMPAIGN 2000

Congress Members Hit the Trail for 'the Team'

Politics: Pressure on safe incumbents to raise funds for national committees is at an all-time high, as both parties recognize control of the House is at stake.

October 06, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As a decorated Navy pilot who went from Vietnam War hero to Washington lawmaker, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is always in demand to speak for Republican candidates on the hustings. But this year, the five-term San Diego congressman is also a top gun where it really counts: raising money to preserve the wobbly GOP House majority.

Cunningham, who faces only token opposition in his own district, has channeled $60,000 to other GOP candidates and raised $200,000 for the National Republican Congressional Committee. And he's working on a third $100,000 installment for the GOP campaign arm--all "so our candidates can get their message out and not get buried," he said.

Cunningham is one of scores of entrenched incumbents on a fund-raising binge as Republicans and Democrats battle ferociously for control of the House. This year, more than ever, both parties are publicly pressuring their members to raise money for "the team." Those who would be captains, lieutenants or just loyal foot soldiers in the next Congress are mobilizing.

"The scope of this activity has clearly changed," said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert and government professor at Colby College in Maine. "It has basically turned being a member of Congress into being engaged in a permanent campaign."

Unprecedented Amounts of Cash

Figures released Thursday cast fresh light on the urgency of the effort. Republicans say that GOP incumbents such as Cunningham have raised $12 million for the NRCC--an amount that would be a record for both major parties.

This year, of course, campaigns on all levels are flush with unprecedented amounts of cash. But the accelerated fund-raising by safe House incumbents will have ripple effects long after the Nov. 7 election. That's because the ability of a lawmaker to spread money around has become a major criterion for leadership in Congress.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), in line to be speaker if Democrats win the chamber, is raising money at a frenetic pace--just as GOP leaders are.

Both the Democrats and Republicans have gone after "soft money"--the unlimited contributions from wealthy donors, corporations and unions that are meant in theory to pay for party activities but not elect individual candidates. And both are now scrambling for "hard money." Such funds are federally limited contributions from individuals and political action committees that can be used for direct election advertising. Campaign laws require parties to spend a certain amount of hard money to take full advantage of their soft money.

Party Leaders Pursue Hard Money

In their quest for precious hard money, party leaders are turning to incumbents for help as they seek any available edge in the desperately close contest for the House. A swing of just seven seats could give Democrats control for the first time in six years.

Republicans are responding to the challenge with an initiative called "Battleground 2000," seeking to raise $16 million in hard money from incumbents for the NRCC. In turn, the committee is channeling the funds into a few dozen decisive districts. The $12-million figure the GOP cited Thursday would exceed the previous record, set in 1998, by at least $3 million, according to calculations by Paul S. Herrnson, a campaign finance expert at the University of Maryland.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the House GOP committee, said Republican lawmakers are "disciplined . . . committed [and] raising and contributing money like never before."

A stop at the fund-raising suite Republicans use on Capitol Hill shows how the party is applying peer pressure. Posted outside the rooms where lawmakers and their operatives make phone calls are lists of House Republicans and the amounts of money they have raised.

One recent day, the posters noted Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, chairman of the House Rules Committee, had raised $350,000 for the cause. Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, had chipped in $300,000. And Reps. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana and Michael G. Oxley of Ohio, senior GOP members of the House Commerce Committee, had raised $152,000 and $150,000, respectively.

Top fund-raisers receive Waterford crystal elephants as a token of appreciation. But the efforts reflect more than altruism. Dreier would lose his coveted chairmanship if Democrats take over the House. Cox, already in the GOP leadership, has shown he wants to climb further. And Tauzin and Oxley are dueling for the Commerce chairmanship if Republicans win.

Cunningham, for his part, is seeking a more prominent role on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and the recipients of his largess may remember that when the time comes.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and other top GOP leaders are raising at least $700,000 each for the party committee.

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