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Another Costly Run May Prove Too High a Price for Feinstein

By Marc Birtel, CQ Staff Writer

Memories of brutal campaigns haunt California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose three statewide races have seen record levels of campaign spending and scathing personal attack ads.

That judgment has California political observers betting that Feinstein will step back from the brink of a gubernatorial bid when she announces her political plans for 1998 -- probably in the week of Jan. 19.

Many Democrats, including President Clinton, have urged Feinstein to take the plunge. Her name recognition far exceeds that of any other Democrat in the race, and the next governor's term will include the reapportionment and redistricting cycle that begins with the 2000 census.

Feinstein has kept quiet while calculating the costs of a fourth statewide run in this decade. She lost to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1990 before winning a Senate special election in 1992 and a regular six-year term in the Senate in 1994.

In 1994, she held off the challenge of Republican Rep. Michael Huffington, who spent nearly $30 million in a campaign that featured months of highly personal attack ads. Feinstein herself spent $14.4 million in that campaign, surviving by less than 2 percentage points. She had spent about $8 million winning her first Senate bid.

At first glance, Feinstein's decision appears risk-free as a run in 1998 would not jeopardize her Senate seat. But she must also consider what effect a loss in 1998 would have on her chances of being nominated for vice president in 2000. Feinstein had been on the list of potential running mates for Walter F. Mondale in 1984 (he eventually chose then-Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York).

With Wilson limited to two terms, Democrats obviously savor the idea of winning California's governorship for the first time since 1978, and most polls show Feinstein with an early edge over the likely GOP nominee, state Attorney General Dan Lungren (House 1979-89).

"She knows the stakes are huge," said Roz Wyman, co-chairman of Feinstein's last three campaigns. "But she also knows that it will probably be a very ugly race."

Feinstein's close allies say the crowded Democratic primary is a major deterrent , and they fear damage to her generally favorable reputation. She would be up against Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who engaged Feinstein in a nasty primary fight in 1992 for the Democratic senatorial nomination -- attacking, among other things, her use of personal money in her 1990 campaign against Wilson.

But Feinstein is likely to be more concerned about another rival, political newcomer Al Checchi, a multimillionaire former chairman of Northwest Airlines, who has said he will spend "whatever it takes" to win the governorship -- a vow some in the state have valued at $50 million.

Even if Feinstein held off her primary challengers, she would then enter the fall campaign against Lungren, who has no worries in the Republican primary and will be husbanding a huge war chest.

Feinstein did get some potential good news about campaign financing when a federal judge ruled unconstitutional a 1996 ballot initiative that sharply curtailed candidates' fundraising for statewide campaigns.

Approved by the voters by 61 percent, Proposition 208 said statewide candidates, including those for governor, could not take donations of more than $500 from individuals, businesses, labor organizations or political action committes.

Committees composed of small contributors were limited to aggregate contributions of $1,000.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled Jan. 6 that these contribution limits violated candidates' First Amendment free speech rights by preventing them from conducting effective campaigns.

Although it is being appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Karlton's decision has at least temporarily removed a tremendous barrier for all candidates who are not self-financing. Feinstein, as well as Davis and Lungren, can hold big-money fundraisers again.

It is possible, however, that the appeals court could issue a stay of Karlton's ruling while the appeal proceeds. That would have the effect of reimposing the limits.

"There's no doubt about it, reversal of Prop 208 helps every incumbent legislator," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University. "The reality is you can't raise big money in California at $500 a hit."

Unparalleled Importance

No one doubts the political importance of winning control of California's governor's mansion in 1998. The governor will preside over the state's redistricting process in 2001, which will determine congressional boundaries. With 52 House seats up for grabs now, and with some population estimates showing a California pickup of one or two new seats after the 2000 census, the stakes are indeed high.

"The winner will prevent their party from being screwed over completely in redistricting," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "But control of the Legislature will become crucial in deciding how things play out."

Democrats currently hold narrow majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Should Democrats retain control in the 1998 elections, a Democratic governor would give the party control over the remapping process for the first time since 1981.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 17, 1998

A Bundle From Virginia
House GOP Casts a Wide Net In Renewed Scandal Hunt
Rainy Days Get No Respect As Savings Rate Droops
Rep. Riggs To Run For Senate
Special Race in New York's 6th To Feature Dueling Democrats
Another Costly Run May Prove Too High a Price for Feinstein
Criticism of 'Corporate Welfare' Heats Up in Congress
Departure of Bureau's Director Deepens Census Controversy
California House Race Shapes Up As a Duel of Interest Groups
Political Advocacy Case Reaches High Court





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