Follow the Money

Candidates spend more time raising funds than talking about issues. Prop B aims to change that.

Every day, it's the same: Working the plan. Working the lists.

Places, ages, race. Names, numbers, addresses and dates. There are ZIP-code lists, income lists and voter-registration lists. There are lists sorted by special interests, ethnic surnames and sexual orientation; lists alphabetized by profession; lists sorted by who gave and who got, when and how much. The lists are organized, reorganized, merged and then purged to be used for direct mailings, phone banks and e-mail blitzes. For people like Nancy Farmer, the Democratic candidate for state treasurer, the lists are so coveted that it's hard to look beyond them.

But she must look beyond them, because from that hallowed ground grows the money, and it's the money, more than anything else, that feeds the campaign. Compared with the money, Farmer's experience as assistant state treasurer and state representative earns little attention, and her plans for the office are like vague academic theories. Intention and skill don't count as much as dollars and cents, because every day, as she scours the lists for new donors, Farmer's purpose is held hostage by this fact: In nine of 10 Missouri races, the candidate with the most money wins.

Nancy Farmer, Democratic candidate for Missouri treasurer
Jennifer Silverberg
Nancy Farmer, Democratic candidate for Missouri treasurer
Regarding fundraising, Farmer says, "It is all-consuming. It's an incredible grind."
Jennifer Silverberg
Regarding fundraising, Farmer says, "It is all-consuming. It's an incredible grind."

And in this race, Farmer is behind. During the primary, Farmer faced off against two Democratic contenders, so she spent all but a few thousand dollars winning that race. Heading into the general election, she faces a Republican opponent, Todd Graves, who amassed so much money -- almost $942,000 -- that he was investing $100,000 chunks in short-term certificates of deposit. By the end of September, Graves had raised $1 million to Farmer's $468,000, so now, to catch up, to even get close, Farmer must rely on the lists more than ever. And she hates every minute of it, wishes her ideas -- rather than her lists -- mattered more.

"You use lists of contributors to your past campaigns and lists of people who you know contributed to other people's campaigns," Farmer says. "We use issue lists; we use the lists of organizations who endorse me; we collect lists by interest, by levels of contribution, by profession. Right now, we have mailings out to people who've contributed to other Democrats, to people who've contributed to me in the past, to people who've contributed to (not-for-profit) groups.

"And the reward that these people get for contributing to someone is that they get 10 additional solicitations, because everybody is using everybody else's lists. I'll call people in the afternoon, and I'm not kidding -- I'll be the third person to call them that day. Think about it. The parties are trying to raise money; the House-campaign committee is trying to raise money; the Senate-campaign committee, the five statewide candidates, the state senators, the state-House candidates and all of the Congressional candidates are all trying to raise money."

This almost riotous level of political fundraising has spawned all sorts of new businesses that promise to help candidates pull in more contributions than their competitors. Farmer's campaign, for instance, contacted a company called Aristotle Publishing (which it did not hire) that generates voter lists according to geographic areas, voting frequencies, income ranges -- any way the client wants them sliced. The company, which has offices in Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., will even add a "Fat Cat" symbol next to the names of people who have contributed $200 or more to other candidates or causes. "When a little dollar sign pops up on the screen next to a voter's name," the company's literature states, "you'll know you're dealing with a Fat Cat."

Aristotle also creates Web pages where people can contribute to a campaign using a credit card; the company takes information gained from the charge card and spits out facts about the donor, including age, sex, estimated income and listed phone number. "You'll raise more money than you ever thought possible," Aristotle predicts, once the company helps the candidate convert "contacts, supporters, volunteers and VIPs into repeat contributors."

Another company, Advantage Campaign, designed Web pages for U.S. Rep. Richard "Dick" Gephardt (D-3rd) and Rick Johnson, a Democrat from House Springs running for state representative, where viewers can contribute by credit card or through the use of an online check. Johnson, whose Web page was selected by Campaign & Elections magazine as one of the five best in the country, says the pressure of raising money for this election reminds him of his naval service on two nuclear ballistic-missile submarines during the Persian Gulf War.

"I was astounded at how much it cost to run for state representative," Johnson says. "It costs about twice as much to run a campaign as a state rep even makes in a year. I'm looking to spend about $60,000, and that's because to send out one piece of mail districtwide is $5,500 just for a state-rep race. And, as they say in the world of marketing, you've got to get your name out in front of people at least seven times before they even remember it. It's tremendously hard, dialing for the dollars. You really rely heavily on your family and friends and people recontributing."

The 10 Republican and Democratic candidates running in the statewide races -- governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer -- have raised more than $11 million just since the August primary. In the governor's race, Democrat Bob Holden and Republican Jim Talent raised more than $10 million between them during the primary period, with Holden carrying $3.2 million over to the general election and Talent carrying over $2.9 million. In September alone, Talent spent $1.1 million on "media buys"; Holden spent $1.3 million. Conversely, in that same month, Talent spent $293 on "grassroots expenses" and Holden spent $298 on "yard sign distribution" and $184 on "parade supplies."

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