Stateline Story

Campaign Spending Goes Different Ways

  • October 20, 2005
  • By Eric Kelderman

Money alone won't win you a seat in the Statehouse, but it's indispensable if you're an incumbent looking to solidify a leadership post.

A list compiled by of the top 10 campaign fund-raisers in the 2004 legislative elections shows the penchant of California candidates to spend big bucks and of legislative leaders to re-gift their campaign dollars. 

The biggest spender, Republican Steve Poizner, pitched in $5.9 million himself to compile a $6.65 million campaign war chest, outspent his opponent more than 3-to-1 and still lost his 2004 race for an open seat in the California State Assembly. Undeterred, he's already announced he's running in 2006 for state insurance commisioner. Of five Californians in the top 10, three lost their races.

Legislative leaders with easy races in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Texas also showed up as top fund-raisers in an analysis of campaign contribution data collected by the Institute on Money in State Politics .  Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel (R) raised $4.6 million last year but gave $1.9 million to fellow candidates and a state political action committee. He still captured nearly 75 percent of the November vote.

Perzel said he plans to hold at least 100 fund-raising events this year and another 100 next year to shore up money for other legislative candidates. His money has helped keep his party in power and also didn't hurt his own influence as speaker, he acknowledged.

"If you can't raise the money, you can't control the House," he said.

Like Perzel, the other top fund-raisers in powerful leadership posts -- all in states without term limits -- shared their war chests to help maintain party control in their chamber or leverage loyalty.

The others were Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Fumo (D), ranking minority member of his chamber's Appropriations Committee; Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D); Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D); and Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R). All five faced little or no opposition, as did 37 percent of incumbent legislators in 2004.

Tim Storey, who studies elections for the National Conference of State Legislatures , said legislative leaders have long used their fund-raising prowess to curry favor and help partisan colleagues get re-elected.

That's the case in Illinois, where Madigan, the House speaker, doled out nearly $1.9 million of $3.1 million he raised to help candidates across the Land of Lincoln. House Democrats share their campaign money with candidates in areas where they might not normally be competitive, said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan. That approach has kept Democrats in the majority for all but two years since Madigan became speaker in 1983, Brown said.

Jones gave $2 million to an Illinois political action committee; Fumo contributed more than $788,000 to Pennsylvania candidates; and Craddick passed on more than $18,000 to Texas candidates.

Jon Goldin-Dubois, vice president of the campaign finance watchdog group Common Cause , said Perzel's example shows how the campaign finance system in most states is "skewed to favor incumbents."

"What is their need for resources if they don't have any challengers?" he asked.

Alex Johnson, director of the Republican State Leadership Campaign Committee (RSLC), said parties already are scheming to capture statehouse majorities before the 2010 census in order to control the next round of redistricting. Nearly 80 percent of the nation's 7,382 statehouse seats will be up for election in 2006. Only New Jersey and Virginia hold state legislative elections this November.

In the 2004 elections, Democrats gained control of eight more legislative chambers, moved the Iowa Senate to a tie and have majorities in both houses in 19 legislatures -- up from 17 after the 2002 elections. Republicans now control legislatures in 20 states -- down from 21 states after 2002. Control of statehouses is split in 10 states.

State legislative races are becoming more competitive as political parties increasingly pursue their agendas at the state level and groom candidates for higher office, said Michael Davies, director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). And the rising stakes at the statehouse have created the need for longer, more professional and costlier campaigns, he said. The RSLC and DLCC are nonprofit political organizations that aid statehouse candidates with cash or campaign services such as polling and advertising.

The most extreme example of high-stakes competition is California, where Statehouse candidates raised nearly $135 million in 2004 -- more than any other state and twice the total raised by candidates in Illinois, which finished second in overall contributions, according to data from the Institute on Money in State Politics. Despite the enormous amounts of money spent for the California races, no seat switched to another party in 2004.

Like Poizner, four other top 10 fundraisers were California candidates who spent nearly all their campaign money in a state where tightly drawn districts, term limits and expensive media have escalated the already high costs of reaching out to voters. Three of the five California candidates were challengers who lost to lesser-funded opponents.

Part of the high cost is due to California's population. State Senate districts represent nearly 847,000 residents, the largest in the nation and 200,000 more people than a U.S. congressional district. California Assembly districts have more than 423,000 residents.

While term limits have increased the number of open seats in each election, attracting more competition and money, redistricting has cemented the party preference of every district, so challengers feel they have to spend more to compete, said Tracy Westen, vice chairman of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

"The problem is the criteria for electing candidates has shifted from how well they can do their job to how well they can raise money," Westen said.