WASHINGTON – Few of the millionaires running for Congress have spent enough of their own money to trigger a new law allowing their challengers to raise larger donations to keep pace.
Some fear the law, designed to level the playing field for candidates with more modest means, could actually give wealthy candidates an advantage down the stretch by allowing them belatedly to spend large sums of their money that rivals can't match.
For instance, wealthy candidates in high-profile Senate races Carolina; and businessman Tim Michels (search) in Wisconsin.
All three are mum about their intentions.
"The hard thing about the millionaire's amendment is you can kind of get sandbagged," said Dino DiSanto, spokesman for Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette (search), R-Ohio, one of the few congressional candidates whose challenger spent enough to bump up his contribution limits.
"Your opponent can spend a lot of money and not pay the bills until late. Then you get caught being outspent," LaTourette said.
Under a law debuting this election cycle, once a self-financed candidate's spending hits certain levels, a rival relying on fund raising can collect increasingly higher amounts from donors to catch up.
Candidates in House races in Missouri and Ohio and a Senate race in Maryland have poured enough of their own money into their campaigns to allow their opponents to make use of the new rule, known as the millionaire's amendment.
The rule — laden with conditions and sliding scales that vary state by state — is one of the most complex in the campaign finance law that took effect with the 2003-04 election cycle.
Even a member of the Federal Election Commission (search), the agency that oversees it, calls the millionaire's rule a "regulatory thicket."
"It's basically federal election laws for math majors," said Republican Commissioner Michael Toner, who wants the FEC to try to simplify it.
For those who figure it out, the amendment can provide a payoff.
Barack Obama's Senate campaign considers the Illinois Democrat living proof that the millionaire's amendment is worth the math. It raised the amount he could collect from each individual donor to $12,000 in his primary — substantially more than the $2,000 limit congressional candidates typically face.
"I think it kept us in the ballgame," said Obama campaign manager Jim Cauley, adding that about $2 million of the nearly $6 million the campaign spent in the primaries came in under the higher cap.
Obama defeated securities trader Blair Hull, who spent about $29 million of his own money on the Democratic race. The emergence of unseemly details from Hull's past, including domestic abuse and cocaine use, damaged his bid.
Others involved in this year's high-stakes races aren't so sure about the rule. Campaigns say one challenge is figuring out when the amendment's thresholds have been reached. It's up to the self-financing candidate to file a form saying the threshold has been hit; the FEC doesn't automatically tell campaigns when higher donation caps kick in.
"The lawyers themselves are still struggling with the interpretations," said Mike Morrill, campaign manager for Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Mikulski can use higher donation limits in her race, but due in part to the rule's extensive bookkeeping requirements plans to hold off unless her lead fades. She has about 150 donors ready to give beyond the $2,000 limit, if needed.
In the primaries, roughly three dozen wealthy candidates hit millionaire's amendment spending thresholds, FEC records show. Fewer than a third survived the primaries.
In the general election, those tapping enough personal money to let rivals raise more include Capri Cafaro, an Ohio Democrat challenging LaTourette; Jeanne Patterson, a Republican facing former Democratic Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver for a Missouri House seat; and Maryland state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican challenging Mikulski.
While incumbents like LaTourette find it fairly easy to cash in on the higher limits, which start at $6,000, some nonincumbents say it's tough enough to raise $2,000 checks.
"In terms of the $6,000 contributors, as you can imagine in the Kansas City area that is a reasonably small universe," Cleaver spokesman Phil Scaglia said. "As the mayor says, he married a hundredaire, not a millionaire."