Senate Hopefuls Pump in $60M

Posted October 20, 2004 at 6:42pm

Spending exploded in the eight most-watched Senate races over the past three months, as more than $60 million was disbursed by candidates as they jockeyed for position in the closing weeks of the campaign.

The nine Democratic candidates in these races — counting both Rep. Chris John (D) and state Treasurer John Kennedy (D) as contenders for the open-seat contest in Louisiana — spent $32.5 million. The eight Republicans spent $28.5 million.

The most expensive race from July 1 to Sept. 30 was the North Carolina open-seat race, in which upwards of $12 million was spent by Rep. Richard Burr (R) and 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles (D).

Burr led the spending spree among all incumbents and challengers, disbursing $7.75 million in the period, largely on a massive statewide television buy that has helped the Winston-Salem Congressman close what had been a 10-point deficit.

Bowles, who had outraised Burr in the two previous quarters, spent $4.6 million during the period. Both men, who hope to succeed Sen. John Edwards (D), have approximately $1.3 million left to spend.

The massive expenditures by candidates on both sides show the extent to which the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed in late 2002, has altered the way races are financed.

In past cycles, the bulk of the spending — especially on television ads — came in the form of issue-advocacy advertising sponsored by the national party committees and financed with unlimited soft-money donations.

Last cycle, for instance, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $97 million in soft money. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, for its part, spent $66 million.

With national party committees now barred by BCRA from raising or spending any soft dollars, the burden for paid communication with voters falls much more squarely on the candidates — especially for the Democrats.

This cycle, the Democrats must defend 19 of their own seats, compared to just 14 Republicans who are up for re-election. The Democratic Party has also been hit hard by retirements, losing five Senators in the South, a difficult region for the party.

On the GOP side, three Senators decided not to seek re-election.

While North Carolina leads the pack in spending, the battle between Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former Rep. John Thune (R) is even more eye-popping for the amount being spent in a state with such a small population.

From the beginning of July to the end of September, Daschle disbursed $7.5 million. Thune spent $4.4 million in that period.

To date, Daschle has spent $17 million — roughly $48 on each of the 350,000 people expected to vote in the contest. Thune has spent nearly $19 per voter.

Even without counting any expenditures made in October, the race has already become the most expensive in the state’s history. In 2002, Sen. Tim Johnson (D) and Thune spent a combined $12 million. Johnson won that race by just 524 votes.

The Florida Senate race between former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) nearly broke the $10 million spending ceiling as well, coming up $100,000 short.

Although the contest to replace retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D) has largely been overshadowed by the presidential race and the four hurricanes that swept across the state earlier in the fall, Castor and Martinez have blanketed the airwaves with attack ads.

Castor spent nearly $1 million more than Martinez in the period and outraised the former Bush administration official by $100,000.

Polling on both sides as well as independent surveys have shown the race essentially tied.

In Colorado’s open seat, state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) and brewing magnate Pete Coors (R) combined to spend $8.2 million in the third quarter as they seek to succeed Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R).

Salazar outraised, outspent and had more cash on hand than did Coors at the end of September, but the wealthy Republican is able to level the playing field with a stroke of his pen.

In the period, Salazar raised $3.8 million, $600,000 of which came from a personal loan.

Coors, who is the head of the nation’s third-largest brewing company, loaned his campaign $550,000 in the past three months.

Several other smaller states that are playing host to major Senate races also saw massive spending during the most recent period.

John, Kennedy and Rep. David Vitter (R) have combined to spend just more than $5 million as they brace for Louisiana’s open primary on Nov. 2.

If none of the three receives 50 percent of the vote, the two top finishers advance to a Dec. 4 runoff.

South Carolina Rep. Jim DeMint (R) and state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) spent nearly $4.9 million in the period as they seek to succeed Sen. Fritz Hollings (D).

The candidates in Oklahoma’s open-seat contest made $4.2 million in expenditures, while in Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) disbursed $3.9 million.