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Our View - A simple alternative to campaign attacks

November 12, 2002

How expensive is it to run for office? Mighty expensive, judging by two recent races in Maryland and West Virginia. But given what the candidates spent their money on, we wonder what if anything the voters learned.

In the contest for West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, Jim Humphreys spent $7.2 million, 95 percent of it his own money, while incumbent Rep. Shelley Moore Capito raised $2.35 million.

In the race for the Maryland governor's office, as of Oct. 25 Rep. Bob Ehrlich had raised nearly $9 million to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's $8 million.

Those totals are an extension of a 20-year trend explored in an October 2001 study of rising campaign costs by researchers at Yale and MIT.

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The study found the cost of a typical race for the U.S. House of Representatives doubled - as measured in 1990 dollars - from $318,000 in 1972 to $735,000 in 1992.

The figure took another jump to $973,000 in 2000. Over same two decades, the cost of TV advertising also doubled.

The authors' premise is that because relatively low cost direct mail tends to suppress TV ad rates, rising TV costs account for less than one-third of the growth in overall campaign costs. But no one disputes the fact that campaign costs are growing at a rate greater than inflation.

What the candidates in this region delivered with the millions they raised was a barrage of negative attacks, in which the opponent was cast as a villain without any redeeming qualities.

What voters saw too little of was the candidates as real people. Humphreys and Capito did better than Ehrlich and Townsend, agreeing to four scheduled debates. There was only one debate in Maryland, where negotiations for a second resembled the Mideast peace talks.

There ought not to be any negotiation on these matters. We strongly recommend that the League of Women Voters or other non-partisan group set dates for future debates now - two or four years ahead of time, and announce they expect the candidates to show up. Perhaps if citizens had more opportunities to see those who are running as human beings, the candidates would spend less money trying to demonize each other.

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