THE 1990 election was something of a disappointment for Democrats. Their gains in the House of Representatives were less than expected, they lost several key gubernatorial races, and they picked up only one seat in the Senate.
The congressional champion of archconservatism, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), beat a Black liberal, Harvey Gantt, with a last-minute racist appeal. California voters resisted Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein's plea to give a woman a chance, giving the Republicans control of the most politically important state in the nation. And two of the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, N.J. Senator Bill Bradley and N.Y. Gov. Mario Cuomo, squeaked to unimpressive victories against little-known opponents.
The results look bleak. So why is this liberal smiling?
Because even when Democrats did not win, an encouraging trend appears to be emerging: this year's elections showed that candidates need not outspend their opponents to win state-wide elections. Democrats, who tend to get outspent in contested races, should take heart in the success of candidates who faced overwhelming financial disadvantages. The results of last week's election illustrate several ways a candidate can win an election while being outspent.
Use lack of money to define your image. In Florida, former Senator Lawton Chiles defeated Republican incumbent Bob Martinez in the governor's race with an appeal against the influence of money in politics. Chiles gambled by limiting individual campaign contributions to $100; on the other side, Martinez worked with a $10 million campaign treasury. By making clear his views about money in politics and translating those views into practice. Chiles gained the advantage in money despite having less of it.
Foregoing big campaign rallies with heavy press coverage, Chiles ran a grass-roots campaign, visiting and talking with people around the state. This type of campaigning, combined with his public snubbing of wealth, associated Chiles with concern for the "common man" and led to his eventual victory.
A more surprising victory was scored in Minnesota by Carleton College political science professor and veteran community organizer Paul Wellstone over Republican incumbent Senator Rudy Boschwitz. The only candidate to unseat a Senator, Wellstone made the rejection of special-interest politics--as exemplified by Boschwitz's PAC money-lined campaign coffers--a major theme of his campaign.
"I've had to jujitsu the money," Wellstone said, meaning that he had to turn Boschwitz's 7 to 1 monetary edge against him. To this end, Wellstone's ads constantly played on this underdog theme; one ad depicts Wellstone racing through a thirty-second biography, explaining that he has to make the most of his time because of his lack of money.
Make your opponent's money a liability. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told his supporters in his victory speech, "Today in Massachusetts we have proved that money can't buy you a U.S. Senate seat." In his campaign against millionaire real-estate developer Jim Rappaport, Kerry applied the corollary to the first rule: He managed to portray his opponent as someone whose only asset was his assets. Kerry's campaign accused Rappaport of acquiring his fortune through family connections, government subsidies and dubious business dealings.
In questioning Rappaport's finances, the Kerry campaign put Rappaport on the defensive. The focus of the campaign switched from Kerry's association with Dukakis and the "tax-and-spend" liberal crowd (best exemplified by Rappaport's "Metamorphosis" ad) to Rappaport's financial dealings. Rappaport was forced to counter with ads saying that his financial success was driving John Kerry "nuts." The voters did not sympathize with the multi-million dollar man.
Kerry's campaign wasn't exactly poverty-stricken, but Rappaport spent $4.2 million of his own money in the campaign. By associating Rappaport with moneyed interests, Kerry made Rappaport's money a liability where it should have been an advantage.
Watch your opponent self-destruct despite big bucks. Clayton Williams, Republican candidate for governor in Texas, spent more money in his campaign than most people would know what to do with--$9 million of his own fortune and $20 million altogether. Tom Luce, a fellow at the Institute of Politics who lost the Republican primary to Williams, said that Williams privately acknowledged that he intended to buy the Republican primary.
Williams couldn't buy the election against Richards, though. Williams self-destructed, offending voters' sensibilities with his undecorous behavior and evident stupidity. He refused to shake Richards' hand at a Dallas luncheon and showed complete ignorance over a proposed constitutional amendment on the Texas ballot. Although most Texas voters weren't crazy about Richards (she constantly fought unusually high negative ratings), Williams' money could not erase the bad impressions he left with many voters.
Find a strong issue and make money unimportant. In one of this year's strongest surprise showings, little-known Republican challenger Christine Todd Whitman almost unseated Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) on a wave of anti-tax hysteria, fueled by the unpopularity of Democratic Governor James Florio. Whitman's strong showing is obviously pleasing to Republicans, who despair of unseating congressional incumbents and their powerful fundraising machines.
But Democrats needn't be unhappy, either. With the exception of organized labor, moneyed interests are usually Republican interests, and Whitman is a prime example of what one can do without the help of moneyed interests. Although she was outspent $12 million to $500,000, Whitman, a former public utilities commissioner, won 49 percent of the vote.
In the end, Whitman greatly exceeded expectations despite a lack of money, advertising and name recognition. She had tied Bradley to Florio, another Democrat, and Bradley was lucky to squeak by with a victory.
No one will deny that money is a huge advantage in a political campaign. Money allows for TV and radio commercial blitzes, media consultants, polls and a large campaign organization. Contrary to popular belief, however, money or the lack of it does not necessarily make or break a campaign. Election '90 has proven that there are ways to win without money, and that is good news for American politics.
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