- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

When then-State Sen. Leonard Lance won the Republican primary in New Jersey’s seventh congressional district in June, he didn’t have much time to celebrate. His Democratic opponent had a considerable war chest - one that would grow to a 2-to-1 advantage by the end of the race.

“Of course we were discouraged, particularly in the summer months, when we were at low tide,” said Mr. Lance, who went on to win the race despite the financial disparity. “But we overcame the disadvantage in other ways.”

The same was not true for 438 other candidates like him in the Nov. 4 elections. In only 30 of 468 congressional races did the candidate who spent more money on the race actually lose.

The better-funded campaigns won more than 93 percent of the congressional seats selected in this election cycle, as well as the White House. The prominent role of money in the race, particularly President-elect Barack Obama’s fundraising bonanza, has prompted a series of watchdog groups to push for Congress and for Mr. Obama to follow through on his calls from the stump for campaign finance reform

Money has long proven to be a significant bellwether of future success, particularly in the Senate. This year, 93.5 percent of those elected or re-elected spent more than their opponent. That’s a significant increase from 73 percent in 2006 and 88 percent in 2004, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a Washington watchdog group.

In the House, 93 percent of those elected spent more than their opponent. That’s on par with the 94 percent in 2006 and less than the 98 percent in 2004. The figures do not include spending by outside groups or the races that have yet to be decided.

Congress hasn’t indicated whether it plans to take up Mr. Obama’s calls to fix what he has called the “broken” campaign-finance system. Democrats, who traditionally have favored campaign finance reform, now find themselves with a president-elect who succeeded by bucking the system and declining public financing.

“What’s going to be fascinating to watch is will the Democratic leadership agree to move a bill to overhaul the public financing system,” said Michael E. Toner, partner at Bryan Cave LLP and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). “There is probably a widespread sense in the Democratic Party that Obama doesn’t need an overhauled system and would in fact be hurt by it.”

A group of seven watchdog groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy21 and CRP, want to close fundraising loopholes - such as joint fundraising committees that allow tens of thousands in donations to presidential candidates and committees - and rein in leadership political action committees, among other requests for presidential and congressional finance reform.

They say money plays too large of a role in the process, keeping challengers out.

“The cost of winning a seat in Congress - more than $1 million in the House and millions more in the Senate - is prohibitive for most people,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the CRP. “Many politicians get elected and re-elected to Congress simply because no one can afford to take them on.”

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, points to Mr. Obama’s campaign as proof that a system centered on small donors is possible and that races at all levels would do well with more competition through tougher finance rules.

“When we did have competition at the presidential level, look at what happened,” she said, referring to the small donors who filled Mr. Obama’s coffers. “Can you imagine if we had that competition up and down the tickets?”

Mr. Obama smashed fundraising levels, raising $639.2 million through mid-October. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain gathered $335.3 million - a combination of money raised during the primary and the $84 million he accepted in public financing for the general election, according to FEC figures.

Challengers don’t necessarily have to spend more than their incumbent opponent, they just have to spend enough to be heard, Mr. Toner said.

“Many times, the incumbent will spend a lot of money, but the political terrain is so negative, if the challenger has enough money to be heard, they can win,” he said.

Mr. Lance attributes his success against Democrat Linda D. Stender to endorsements from nine local newspapers. Others, such as Rep.-elect Betsy Markey who beat Republican incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado, attribute success against a well-funded opponent to grass-roots campaigning.

“We knew that as a challenger, we were never going to have as much money,” said spokesman Ben Marter. “But we certainly had the resources to get Betsy Markey’s message out and Betsy connected to the voters more effectively than her opponent.”

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