Candidates for governor are shattering spending records in more than a half-dozen states, and coming close elsewhere, in one of the most competitive election years for the states' top office over the past decade.
In Texas, slick commercials come back-to-back. Phones ring off the hook in Wisconsin. Direct mail, ad campaigns, and phone banks drive expensive campaigns in Maryland, New Mexico and beyond.
Some of the spending is fueled by wealthy candidates, as in New York. Other races are inflated by huge campaign fund-raising efforts; that's what's happened in California. Competitive races are driving up the costs in Florida, Illinois and more.
"Money is definitely the name of the game, unfortunately,'' said Celia Viggo Wexler, research director for Common Cause, a nonprofit citizens group that supports public financing of elections. From pharmaceutical companies to public-employee unions, she said, "there are lots of reasons for special interests to give at the state level. And there are lots of hands out at the state level.''
States where records are falling include:
— Texas: GOP Gov. Rick Perry and Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez have spent a record $72 million between the two of them so far, easily surpassing the 1990 record of $53.4 million in their state.
— New York: Total spending hit $89 million earlier this month, driven partly by at least $40 million spent by billionaire and Independent Party candidate B. Thomas Golisano, who is self-financing his third run. GOP Gov. George Pataki spent at least $27 million, while Democrat H. Carl McCall, who complained this week that the national party hasn't provided enough financial help, spent $11 million.
— New Mexico: Democrat Bill Richardson spent more than $5.6 million while Republican John Sanchez has shelled out $1.9 million, breaking the 1998 record of $5.2 million with the home stretch yet to come.
— New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where competitive races smashed spending records before the primary races were concluded. More than $10.4 million was spent by the end of August in Wisconsin, and $9.6 million in New Hampshire by the GOP nominee alone, multimillionaire Craig Benson.
None of the races so far have surpassed the $130.5 million spent in California on the 1998 gubernatorial race, the highest number found by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a watchdog group in Montana. But spending in New York and Texas is nearing $100 million.
Records are falling in many smaller states. Alabama, Iowa, Maryland and South Carolina all are seeing races far more expensive than ever before.
And while all-time highs haven't been reached in California or Florida, eye-popping fund raising has become a campaign issue. First-term Democratic Gov. Gray Davis's huge money lead — he had $21 million on hand as the month began, after spending $17 million over three months — has been a target of GOP candidate Bill Simon. In Florida, GOP Gov. Jeb Bush has criticized union money flowing to Democratic challenger Bill McBride.
Both major parties are also contributing heavily to state-level elections with an eye toward the presidential race in 2004. Governors help drive national debates on many domestic issues, and four of the last five presidents served as governors at one time.
"This is off-cycle, so both parties are doing everything they can — Republicans to maintain their momentum from their presidential win, and the Democrats to turn the tide,'' said Ed Bender with the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Money has an immediate impact on races. In Texas, Tony Sanchez, a Laredo banker, was a political unknown when he started his campaign, but an influx of cash helped him defeat former state Attorney General Dan Morales to snare the Democratic primary.
Now he's cut Perry's 30 percentage point lead in half as he's continued to pour money into the race.
"The reason it (the campaign) started as early as it did is no one knew Tony Sanchez,'' said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "He had to spend a lot of money. You have to count that as money very well spent.''