WASHINGTON – A new campaign law meant to reduce the influence of money in politics didn't undo the advantage of big spending in the congressional elections: Nearly all the highest-spending candidates won.
In the House, at least 96 percent of the biggest spenders — mostly incumbents — prevailed, according to an Associated Press review of the latest campaign finance data the candidates filed with the Federal Election Commission (search). In the Senate, about 94 percent of those who spent the most money won.
The percentages were similar to the margins in 2002.
The only high spenders who didn't fare well overall were those who bankrolled their own campaigns. None of the candidates who tapped enough of their own money to trigger a feature of the law that allows opponents to accept bigger donations won Tuesday. They include beer baron and Colorado GOP Senate candidate Pete Coors (search) or former junk-bond trader E.J. Pipkin (search), a Republican who challenged Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski (search).
The most expensive Senate race was another of the handful of cases where big spending didn't pay off. Sen. Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., the Senate minority leader, lost to Republican John Thune despite spending nearly $6 million more than Thune as of mid-October, according to the most recent figures available.
Likewise, in the contest for an open Senate seat in Oklahoma, Republican Tom Coburn defeated Democrat Brad Carson after starting the last two weeks of the campaign about $1.5 million behind in spending.
In all, House and Senate candidates competing in the general election spent at least $712 million this election cycle, up about 15 percent from 2002, an FEC analysis found.
The new law, meant to take six-figure and larger contributions out of federal elections, may have been a factor in the higher congressional spending. While it banned the national party committees and presidential and congressional hopefuls from raising corporate, union and unlimited donations known as soft money, the law doubled the maximum amount individuals may give federal candidates to $2,000, from $1,000.
The boost helped fuel record spending in the presidential race. President Bush and Sen. John Kerry accounted for nearly one-third of the roughly $1.8 billion they and congressional candidates spent on the primaries and general election.
How the new law influenced political giving in the 2003-04 election cycle is likely to be the subject of congressional debate in coming months.
While it barred the national party committees from accepting soft money, the law hasn't prevented a score of partisan outside groups from stepping in to collect those big checks.
Campaign watchdogs and the law's sponsors, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., want Congress to pass legislation cracking down on the new soft-money groups. Early in the last election cycle, they drew support from Bush and the Republican National Committee, who were angered by aggressive pro-Democratic soft-money efforts.
It's unclear whether a majority of lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Congress will support a crackdown.
Last spring, after the FEC declined to impose new limits on such groups without congressional action, Republican activists began beefing up their own soft-money efforts and, by Election Day, had proved they, too, could raise tens of millions of dollars for such groups, though they still trailed their Democratic counterparts.
McCain and Feingold, both re-elected Tuesday, also want Congress to replace the FEC. They and campaign watchdogs contend the agency isn't enforcing the law aggressively enough. As another example of what they say are commission moves opening loopholes in the law, they point to recent statements by four of the six commissioners in support of unlimited individual donations to funds by presidential and congressional candidates in case of election recounts.