EDITORIAL: How much will House cost?

2016 HAS BEEN SUCH A GOOD YEAR so far, hasn’t it? Balmy weather lately and who needs that silly season called autumn. Best of all, the fall political campaigns for president and Congress have only just begun instead of going on and on… oh, wait, never mind.

It’s 15 months until the general election when we’ll pick our federal officeholders. But who’s counting? The people hoping to get elected to federal office in 2016 and announcing their plans now, before we get the chance to pick city, town and county officials this fall, know what they’re doing.They understand that it takes endless campaigning to win and hold on to high public office. You can’t do that unless you have the money. This is a principle that applies up and down the political food chain, but the higher you go the more critical it becomes. The quest for funds can distort the electoral process, most visibly at the presidential level. But it’s not confined to the billions that will be–maybe already have been–spent on the race for the White House. Just look at the history of our congressional district, the 19th.

This comes up now because one candidate officially announced this week he is running for Congress and at least two others say they’re interested in pursuing the same House seat in November 2016 election. There will be many more. Former Assembly Minority Leader and the 2006 Republican candidate for governor John Faso became the second candidate to declare his intention to seek the seat held by Chris Gibson. Mr. Gibson, a Republican now in his third term, is not seeking reelection.

More than a dozen members of the press and dozens of supporters showed up for Mr. Faso’s announcement at his home in Kinderhook Tuesday, September 15. Mr. Faso, who has a notable career in public service, brushed aside a question from a reporter about whether he would be able to raise the money needed to run. He had good reason to say little on this subject. At this point in the election process only disconnected candidates with more money than they’ll ever need would pretend to know how much it will cost to get elected.

Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R-102nd) has said he plans to make his announcement on a run for Congress soon and Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin (R-107th) has also expressed an interest in running for the House. Each of those two popular local lawmakers already represents parts of the 19th Congressional District in the Assembly and each mentioned but did not dwell on the challenge of raising enough money to run and win. As the field gets more crowded the later entries may look back on this week longingly, wishing they had all the media attention paid to Mr. Faso.

Money needn’t be the deciding issue, as Rep. Gibson proved in his landslide victory last year over Democrat Sean Eldridge. Before the election ended Mr. Eldridge had raised nearly $5 million, much it his own money, and Mr. Gibson, who has little personal wealth, had raised $3 million and spent just over half that amount.

But The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that the total spending on last year’s race for Congress in this district came to $11.5 million, with Mr. Gibson receiving significant outside help that allowed him to overcome the financing advantage Mr. Eldridge had. The contest in this rural district was the sixth most expensive House race in the country last year.

Without a popular incumbent the House seat could well be a toss-up and the money will undoubtedly be flowing into this district again next year. With Tuesday’s announcement by Mr. Faso, the process may already have begun. Whenever it starts, the money will come from both major parties. The New York Times said this week that Democrats plan to use fundraising tactics developed by the GOP in the House and Senate races.

The problem here isn’t about a single candidate. Mr. Faso and his announced competitors are honorable people who will play by the rules. But the rules are skewed. Voters are facing a prolonged assault on our judgment. It’s no longer the noise of democracy, it’s the hiss of manipulation. It comes from unimaginably powerful, persuasive and expensive tools.

The process starts early because raising millions takes time for people who don’t already have the cash. But we should be ready to ask each candidate whether the spending is fair and, if it’s not, what each would do to fix it.

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