Money rules in Congressional races, too. In the House, where the GOP has a slim, five-seat margin, control could go either way. According to analyst Charles Cook, that control will be determined by a mere handful of races, probably fewer than twenty out of the 435, since most House seats are safe. (In '98, 401 incumbents ran, and 395 of them won.)
Money works its magic in Congressional races in two ways. First, incumbents amass enormous war chests to scare off challengers, with the average incumbent in next year's races already having stockpiled $350,000 sixteen months before the election. Representative Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has $1.7 million in his campaign account, including half a million dollars raised at an April fundraiser with New York Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, reports the Bergen Record. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, not considered a fundraising heavyweight before his rise to power, has pulled in $594,000 for his campaign and $965,000 more for his leadership PAC. And Representative James Rogan, the California Republican who is considered vulnerable because of his outspoken role as a House impeachment manager, raised nearly $1.6 million in the first half of '99.
Second, leadership PACs, party committees and outside interest groups are preparing to pour millions of dollars into those few races where the outcome is still in doubt. Hastert and Texas Representative Tom DeLay, the GOP majority whip and the party's liaison to Washington's lobbying community, have set up Retain Our Majority Program funds aimed at raising up to $200,000 for each of ten endangered GOP incumbents. Meanwhile, DeLay has also set up an innovative and highly controversial nonprofit group intended to raise $25 million in soft money from corporate allies of the GOP. And so far, the National Republican Congressional Committee has raised $27.8 million, 87 percent over the $15 million it had raised by the same point in the last cycle. On the Democratic side, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, led by Representative Patrick Kennedy, who has engaged in a frantic schedule of fundraiser-hopping since January, has nearly tripled its take, compared with the last time around, to $17 million. On March 9 a Republican House dinner raised $4 million, and the next day Congressional Democrats held a $3 million meal. Plus, with little fanfare, for the first time the NRCC and the DCCC have set up soft-money accounts, allowing them to take in vast, unlimited sums from deep-pocket donors, money that--like all of these rapidly proliferating funds--can be spent with little or no oversight in a handful of House races.
The thirty-three Senate races in 2000 could cost nearly as much as all 435 House races. In '98, candidates for the House raised $424 million, and Senate candidates $288 million; that year, candidates in the four most expensive Senate races--New York, Illinois, California and North Carolina--spent $118 million, and that's not counting tens of millions spent by their primary opponents. Just by itself, the prospective Hillary Clinton/Rudolph Giuliani race in New York could set a new benchmark. Both parties are busily recruiting superwealthy candidates who can either self-finance their runs or call on personal networks of rich donors; in Nevada, the likely GOP Senate standard-bearer will be former Representative John Ensign, whose father is head of the Circus Circus casino empire, while in New Jersey Democrats are counting on Jon Corzine, former Goldman Sachs executive, worth $300 million. The two candidates have scared off credible opponents.
Both parties are meanwhile building soft-money war chests that will finance issue-ad commercials for presidential, House and Senate candidates on a scale never seen before. Some background: Soft money started in the late seventies, in a tiny trickle, after the FEC ruled that state political parties could spend unregulated money on activities like voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts. In 1988, when Michael Dukakis ran unsuccessfully for President, the Democratic National Committee began spending significant funds on activities related to the presidential campaign, and the Republicans soon followed. It was called "soft" money to distinguish it from the "hard" dollars that fall under FEC regulations, including strict limits on how much donors can contribute. In 1988 the parties raised about $50 million in soft money. (At the time, soft money did not even have to be reported to the FEC, and it wasn't until a lawsuit by Common Cause in 1991 that soft money became subject to reporting and disclosure--but it was still unregulated.) For the 1992 campaign, the two parties raised $86 million in soft money, and in 1996 they tripled their total to $262 million. This year campaign watchers expect that soft money will rise to between $500 million and $750 million.