Senate Hopefuls' Trial By Fire
By Karen Foerstel, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, July 11) -- Senate candidates have blasted each other as "right wing" and "extreme," accused their opponents of misusing taxpayer money and illegally handing out political favors, and spent millions trying to destroy each other.
And that is just between candidates of the same party.
With less than four months until Election Day, many of this year's Senate hopefuls have faced bruising battles. The high number of primary races across the country is giving candidates the chance to prove their political prowess and gain name identification early on, but the races also are forcing them to spend precious dollars to win their parties' nominations. (Charts, pp. 1862, 1863)
"Does the primary process help the eventual nominee? It could. It forces them to get a good organization together," said Michael Tucker, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). "But it drains their resources and leaves negatives hanging out there."
One of the uglier primary fights took place in Illinois, where conservative state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald defeated moderate state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson for the GOP nomination and the right to challenge freshman Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun.
During the primary, Fitzgerald, a wealthy banker and corporate attorney, poured $7 million of his own money into the race, much of it for negative television ads. In the ads, Fitzgerald accused Didrickson of misusing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to redecorate her state government office and fill it with expensive potted plants.
Supporters of Didrickson, including 1996 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, shot back, calling Fitzgerald a right-wing "fringe" candidate.
Since Fitzgerald's narrow 52 percent to 48 percent victory over Didrickson in March, Dole has begun stumping for the winner. But Didrickson has given Fitzgerald a lukewarm endorsement, saying simply that she will work "on behalf of the entire Illinois Republican ticket."
Some Republicans fear that Fitzgerald's conservatism and outspoken opposition to abortion will turn off moderates and undermine one of their best shots at defeating a vulnerable Democrat.
"I've had moderate Republicans tell me they won't vote for Fitzgerald," said John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Jackson said Fitzgerald may also carry the stigma of "buying" the primary nomination. "He spent a ton of money. You can be sure the Moseley-Braun people will reinforce that point."
Republicans have attacked Moseley-Braun as too liberal and for a number of controversies that have plagued her personal life.
Her former fiance and campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, is embroiled in a civil lawsuit in connection with $250,000 he owes a travel agency. Matthews also was the subject of sexual harassment charges years ago.
Moseley-Braun has made a number of missteps that continue to dog her. In 1996, she took an unofficial trip to Nigeria with Matthews -- a former lobbyist for the African nation -- to visit dictator Sani Abacha. The State Department, as well as numerous human rights groups, rebuked her for the trip, but she dismissed the criticisms, saying it was her duty as a lawmaker to keep in touch with world leaders.
Shortly before her 1992 victory, it was revealed that Moseley-Braun improperly accepted an inheritance from her mother while the ailing woman was receiving public assistance in a nursing home. The money should have gone to the state for her mother's care.
Republicans have placed Moseley-Braun at the top of their target list, and they have set their sights on two other Democrats elected in 1992's Year of the Woman: Washington state's Patty Murray and California's Barbara Boxer. The GOP also hopes to capture the seats of retiring Democrats in Arkansas, Kentucky and Ohio.
Republicans are well-situated heading into November. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has raised $13 million, compared with $7.6 million for the DSCC during the first five months of the year. But analysts on both sides predict the Senate's current balance of 55 Republicans to 45 Democrats will change little in the elections. Democrats admit they just want to hold on to their current numbers but concede that they might lose as many as two seats. Privately, Democrats say there is little chance of keeping the seat of retiring Ohio Democrat John Glenn, but they are confident they will offset the loss by winning the seat of retiring Indiana Republican Sen. Daniel R. Coats.
"There's not likely to be a lot of net change," said Democratic pollster and consultant Mark Mellman. "This year is not a battle for control of the Senate."
In a status quo year underscored by a humming economy, Congressional Quarterly lists slightly more than half of the 34 Senate seats as safe. Political observers, however, warn that the landscape could shift, especially if Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr submits a damaging report to Congress on his investigation of President Clinton.
Bruising Battle In Kentucky
A Mellman client, Rep. Scotty Baesler, D-Ky., survived one of the country's most expensive primaries in his bid to win the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Wendell H. Ford.
Baesler won the six-way primary, despite being outspent nearly 5-to-1 by businessman Charlie Owen, who put more than $6 million of his own money into the campaign. The spending race forced Baesler to loan himself about $400,000 and resulted in the costliest primary in state history.
Owen used much of his money to run attack ads accusing Baesler of using taxpayer money for political favors and of voting against a balanced budget.
Since Baesler captured the May primary with 34 percent of the vote, Owen and the other top Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, have backed Baesler. Democrats say the primary forced him to pull together a strong campaign team, which will help him in the general election against Republican Rep. Jim Bunning.
Polls show that Baesler's approval ratings actually improved after the primary. A Mason-Dixon poll taken shortly before the primary put Baesler ahead of Bunning by 10 points. A poll commissioned by Democrats after the race put Baesler up by 13 points.
But the costly primary left Baesler hurting financially. As of May 6, he reported just $179,039 cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
That means big trouble for Baesler heading into November. Bunning had only a minor primary challenge and reported more than $1.2 million cash on hand shortly before the race. Republicans consider this an almost life-or-death contest, since the chairman of the NRSC, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is intent on winning this race in his home state.
"McConnell set a precedent for the first time in recent memory for a chair and endorsed Bunning before the primary. He made it very clear that Jim Bunning was the right candidate for the race. He's focused on Kentucky. He has the logistics and the strategy to make this a competitive fight," said Mike Russell, spokesman for the NRSC.
The New York Fight
Five Senate seats are open this year because of retirements. Fourteen Republicans are defending their seats, as are 15 Democrats. There are still 18 states slated to hold late-season primaries, and several of them are certain to prove contentious.
In New York, Democrats are champing at the bit in hopes of ousting a perennial target, Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato. Some Democrats privately have joked that it would be worth losing four or five seats overall if they could just get rid of D'Amato, who won re-election in 1992 by just 1 percentage point. Those same Democrats worry that their trio of candidates could self-destruct before the Sept. 15 primary.
One referred to the Democratic challengers as a potential "circular firing squad."
The fear is a result of the state's history of ugly Democratic primaries, which have left the nominee bruised and too weak to topple the well-financed D'Amato. One of this year's Democratic challengers, New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, refers to 1992 as "a Bosnia of a primary," but insists that it will not happen again.
"I have no intent of winning a nomination that's not worth anything," Green said.
He will face 1984 vice presidential candidate and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (1979-85) and Rep. Charles E. Schumer in the primary.
Other races worth watching:
- Arkansas. Former Rep. Blanche Lincoln (1993-97) is favored to win the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers in what is expected to be one of the costliest races in state history.
Lincoln exceeded all expectations in capturing the party nomination in a June 9 runoff, encouraging Democrats who have watched the GOP make steady gains in the South. But Republicans will work hard to win this seat in Clinton's home state. Their candidate is ophthalmologist and state Sen. Fay Boozman, who has the backing of the religious right. Lincoln, however, is no liberal, serving in the moderate-to-conservative "Blue Dog" Democratic caucus while in Congress.
- Ohio. Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich has been the clear front-runner for Glenn's seat. But recent polls show Democratic challenger Mary Boyle closing the gap. Boyle, a former Cuyahoga County commissioner, has successfully hammered the governor for the poor condition of the state's schools, and Voinovich also has been hurt by ethics problems involving his staff and family. Voinovich is still the favorite but is no longer considered a shoo-in.
Top Targets For Democrats
- North Carolina. First-term Sen. Lauch Faircloth is considered this year's most vulnerable GOP incumbent and faces a tough re-election bid against wealthy Democratic trial lawyer John Edwards. The national GOP has already started to air issue ads across the state touting Faircloth's rejection of a pay raise and his refusal to take taxpayer-financed junkets. The ads also hit Democrats for trying to roll back welfare reforms. Edwards is a multimillionaire willing to spend as much money as he needs to wrestle this seat away from the GOP. (CQ Weekly, p. 1203)
- Missouri. Democratic polls show two-term Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond scoring less than 50 percent and place likely Democratic nominee Jay Nixon just 9 points behind. But Nixon, the state attorney general, has been hurt by a very public feud with local African-American voters. Nixon is working to end school busing, and the effort has prompted many black leaders to throw their support to Bond. If the split is not healed, Nixon will lose a crucial segment of the Democratic voting base. (CQ Weekly, p. 1597)
- Colorado. Democrats would love to avenge the loss of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell to the GOP; he switched parties after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. The state GOP has a large contingency of conservative religious activists, and many local Republicans do not trust their newest member. Campbell is expected to survive a primary challenge from Denver lawyer Bill Eggert, who is questioning Campbell's conservative credentials. Two Democrats are running for the nomination, former Colorado first lady Dottie Lamm and state Rep. Gil Romero.
Top Targets For Republicans
- South Carolina. Five-term Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings faces a tough challenge from GOP Rep. Bob Inglis in what has become a solid Republican state. Despite a slow start, Inglis is surging in the polls. Hollings has spent more than $600,000 on TV ads, but Inglis is still close on his heels. The Republican nominee is courting the African-American vote, which has traditionally gone to Hollings. Inglis has called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state Capitol and is encouraging stronger ties between the GOP and blacks.
- Washington. Maverick Republican Rep. Linda Smith appears likely to win the nomination and face freshman Murray in a rare woman-vs.-woman Senate matchup. The campaign could become heated because of the candidates' two strikingly different philosophies and styles. Murray is a laid-back liberal who supports gun control; Smith is a solid National Rifle Association supporter whose combative style sometimes alienates members of her own party. Smith will first have to win the primary against lawyer Chris Bayley, who has a solid fundraising operation.
- California. Ever since she won her last election with just 48 percent of the vote, liberal Democrat Boxer has been at the top of Republican hit lists. Polls show her popularity hovering just below 50 percent. The Republican nominee, state Treasurer Matt Fong, narrowly won a divisive primary after being outspent nearly 4-to-1. But Fong is not considered the most dynamic campaigner, and he also carries some baggage from the ongoing campaign finance investigations. He is the most prominent elected GOP official to receive questionable donations, although he later returned them.
- Nevada. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid is taking the challenge from GOP Rep. John Ensign very seriously, already hitting the TV airwaves with several negative ads attacking Ensign on his environmental and education records. Ensign also has gone on the air, striking back at Reid and the "liberal Democrats." Polls show Ensign closing in on Reid, and in the fastest growing state in the country, Reid and Ensign will have to work hard to improve their name identification and win over hundreds of thousands of new voters who have moved to the state in recent years.
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