Candidates with cash narrow field

Wealthy congressional hopefuls win party support, unsettle rivals

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 10/25/99

ASHINGTON - For a growing number of congressional candidates, campaign finance is becoming simply a matter of personal finance.

With the 2000 elections more than a year away, the candidate fields are being narrowed early, often because the contenders are dumping their own money into their campaigns and scaring off challengers, campaign analysts say.

Increasingly, political parties are turning to candidates who can self-finance or who have great personal wealth to fall back on if the campaign account runs low.

Already, 20 candidates for the House and Senate have lent or contributed $100,000 or more of their own money to their campaigns, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. Republican presidential contender Steve Forbes is financing his own campaign, and two possible Reform Party candidates, Ross Perot and real estate mogul Donald Trump, can afford to bankroll a national campaign.

Lack of money has forced four candidates out of the GOP presidential race, even though the first primary is months away.

Big money doesn't always guarantee a winner. In fact, said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, ''most self-financed candidates who spend big bucks lose.'' But it gives immediate credibility to a candidate who might not otherwise have a chance, campaign analysts say.

''By accident, we're going to have a plutocracy - government by people who can afford to pay for a campaign,'' said Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Minnesota's Carleton College.

Just ask Representative David Minge of Minnesota, a Democrat. Minge pulled out of the Senate race largely because of his inability to raise cash. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made it clear, he said, that it couldn't help.

''The word I got, third- or fourth-hand, is that some decision had been made by the DSCC. They had limited resources, and if they could find a candidate who could self-finance, that would be an advantage,'' Minge said. ''It's pretty disturbing.''

One of the leading Democratic candidates now is attorney Michael Ciresi, whose law firm shared a $6.1 billion settlement against tobacco companies.

Without that money, Schier said, Ciresi never would have been considered a viable candidate.

''He's achieved instant credibility without ever having spent a day in political life, and the reason is that he's got deep pockets,'' Schier said.

Paradoxically, wealthy candidates often can make a populist appeal, Schier and others noted, since they can say they are not in the pockets of special interests who contribute money to campaigns.

The danger, critics say, is that the high cost of campaigns could shut out worthy contenders across the political spectrum.

''We will become a nation of two parties: old money and new money,'' said Brad Johnson, a onetime adviser to Mario M. Cuomo when he was governor of New York.

In New Jersey, Jon Corzine, a former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, has an estimated $300 million in personal wealth to bring to his race for the Senate next year. James Florio, the former New Jersey congressman and governor who is also seeking the Democratic nomination in the Senate race, has put $100,000 of his own money into his campaign.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic senatorial candidate Bob Rovner has dumped more than $1 million of his own money into his campaign. The Democrats recently tapped multimillionaire attorney Ed Bernstein to run from Nevada for the Senate. In Washington, former US Representative Maria Cantwell is drawing attention from Democrats - as senior vice president at RealNetworks, a Seattle-based company dealing in streaming media technology on the Internet. She is now believed to be worth many millions of dollars.

House candidates are also dumping their own funds into their races. West Virginia Democrat James F. Humphreys has sunk $600,000 into his own campaign, while Texas Republican John Mark Brewer has put in nearly $560,000 into his campaign.

The Senate Democratic committee does not discourage candidates who aren't rich, said political director Jim Jordan. But ''the ability to self-finance is an asset,'' he said.

''We don't actively try to move people out of races,'' Jordan said. ''Certainly, if we don't believe someone doesn't have the ability or the stomach for serious fund-raising, that's something we discuss with them.''

The number of self-financing candidates for the 2000 elections is currently lower than the final tally from previous election cycles. But wealthier candidates are pouring big money into their own campaigns much earlier this time.

''We tell our clients to put their own money in, and put it in as soon as possible, to scare other candidates,'' said Democratic consultant David Brown.

''Having a heartbeat and a checkbook is most important for the Democrats,'' said Pete Sekulow, spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republican Senate candidates so far haven't been self-financing because ''we're in the majority. We're playing defense,'' Sekulow said.

''I don't think self-financing always wins the day,'' said Minge. ''But all things being equal, it's a clear advantage.''