Angry state Republicans learn campaign money was not being spent

Republican candidates and their supporters across Washington state are furious that as much as $1.2 million in contributions to the state GOP went unspent in this fall's campaign--money that might have helped Slade Gorton retain his seat in the U.S. Senate.

And there may be a new political casualty: state Republican Chairman Don Benton, the man being held responsible by party activists who want him replaced.

The party's executive board learned Saturday that so much money remained in the bank after the Nov. 7 election that Benton had decided to buy a $360,000 office building. He says the party was flush with last-minute contributions but that most of it came from restricted national party funds, and he couldn't find enough advertising time or consultants to spend it. But two statewide candidates said they specifically asked Benton for help in those final days and were told there was no money available.

Don Davidson says he was so underfunded in his race for state insurance commissioner against Democrat Mike Kreidler that he was only able to afford one mailing. He received $10,000 from the state GOP but thought he would receive another $20,000 just before the election to help cover his debts.

"I'm just flabbergasted," Davidson said. "My first comment was, `Hey, if you can buy a building, what happened to my $20,000?' "

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee, which had deemed Washington a battleground state in the presidential race and had sent money to the state party, is launching its own inquiry and asking for some of its money back. Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, carried the state.

Benton says all the grumbling is being led by a few individuals who don't like him. In an interview last night, he sought to shift some of the blame to representatives of Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn and Gorton.

He said he was told by the party controller the excess funds amount to about $750,000--most of which came from the RNC and was transferred to the state's Vote 2000 committee organized to elect federal and statewide candidates.

He shared check-signing responsibility for that committee money with representatives of Gorton and Dunn and had no idea so much money was sitting in the account. Benton said he was legally prohibited from giving any of that money to statewide candidates.

He defended his purchase of a new office building as a "good deal" that will save money in the long run. It also will allow the party to move its headquarters from Tukwila to Olympia, the center of political power in the state.

But board members say Benton had no authority to buy a building without their knowledge and have put a hold on the deal.

They believe the unspent money might have helped Gorton, the state's most high-profile Republican, gain the 2,230 votes he needed to defeat Democrat Maria Cantwell. That election, the closest U.S. Senate race in the nation, also cost the GOP control of Congress' upper chamber.

Results of a statewide recount last week showed Republicans also came within 133 votes of winning control of the state House of Representatives, which has been locked in a tie between Democrats and Republicans the past two years. Yesterday, two top party representatives and the party's controller continued reviewing financial records to determine exactly how much money is in GOP accounts. Estimates range from $400,000 to $1.2 million, including the money spent for the building.

Questions about Benton's handling of finances emerged Saturday when the party's executive board met for its quarterly meeting. At that meeting, Benton mentioned that he had closed the deal on a $360,000 office building. Board members, who oversee party policy and the budget, objected that there had been no discussion about buying property. The party's lawyer told them Benton had no authority to spend so much money without their approval.

Yesterday, news of the inquiry by state leaders and RNC officials spread by e-mail and in phone conversations across the state.

Jim Keough, a former state field director for Gorton, is among those still distressed about Gorton losing his seat by such a razor-thin margin. He was directing a get-out-the-vote program for Vote 2000, a coordinated committee that relied on party money to do its work on behalf of Gorton, presidential candidate George W. Bush, congressional candidates and statewide candidates.

"I'm incredibly frustrated by all of this," Keough said. "Here, we had the leading Republican in our state, who we all greatly admire, facing a challenge from somebody who was willing to spend over $10 million of her own money. After all that Slade Gorton has done for the state over the last several years, for them to withhold money so they could buy a building in Olympia is simply preposterous."

Benton disputed the suggestion that the party could have done any more to assist Gorton and other candidates in close races before the Nov. 7 election. Much of the money arrived too late to buy television advertising time or to hire consultants to design last-minute mailings, he said.

The party chairman thinks Gorton lost the Senate race because Democrats were better organized in getting union members, women and nontraditional voters to back Cantwell, not because he was outspent by the high-tech millionaire.

"The bottom line is we didn't do well with women voters, and the reason was the issues," Benton said. "You can spend all the money in the world to communicate. If you don't have the right issues, it's not going to make a difference."

But Keough and some of the GOP's leading candidates say there was plenty of opportunity to spend money on radio advertising, cable television, doorbelling and phone banks.

Sam Reed, who won a competitive race for secretary of state, said he could have used extra money to respond to radio ads by Democrat Don Bonker. But Benton told him he didn't have money to give him.

More generally, Reed said, state Democrats appeared to be putting more money behind their candidates than Republicans were on behalf of theirs.

"I'm upset, disappointed and feel like I was out there giving my all," said Reed, now $22,000 in debt. "To not have my party give me money when they had it was very disappointing. I intend to get back to the state party and still ask for help."

Benton, a state senator from Vancouver, took over as party chairman last May. The state committee, made up of 78 activists from around the state--some of whom serve on the executive board--elected him to serve out the term of Dale Foreman, who had resigned.

Outspoken and combative, Benton shook up things almost immediately by firing the executive director and launching an advertising campaign to lure more minorities into the party. His relations with some members of the executive board were already strained before Saturday.

Lindsey Echelbarger, a board member from Snohomish County, said the office-building purchase indicates Benton wasn't putting enough attention where he should have: helping candidates. The effort to buy the Olympia building was made a few weeks before the Nov. 7 election.

"Maybe we should name this building the Maria Cantwell Building because it will have been constructed on the political grave of Slade Gorton," Echelbarger said.

Benton defends his actions. He says he hardly spent any time looking at properties--a donor did that for him--and that his personal attorney told him the bylaws gave him authority to make financial decisions for the party.

Benton says he mentioned the idea of buying a building to a couple members of the state committee. But he acknowledges that he withheld information from the executive board until Saturday, two days after he wrote the check.

"Until the deal was closed, I didn't feel like I should take a chance of disclosing it," Benton said. He called it "clearly a brilliant financial move for the financial viability of the party," which now spends $70,000 a year leasing office space in Tukwila.

In a press release about the party's relocation to the state capital, Benton noted that it will strengthen the ties between the GOP and state lawmakers. What he did not say is that the executive board voted to rescind the building's purchase. The title company was asked to stop the escrow from moving forward. Executive board members say they know very little about the building, except it is a former bank building in downtown Olympia. Benton says he couldn't remember where it is located.

This week's revelations may affect Benton's bid for a full two-year term when Republican Party activists meet next month. Keough and other executive-board members said they want Benton out as party leader and are talking to prospective challengers.

Benton said the review of party financial records by executive-board representatives was only "a recap of our expenditures, which we do after every election. It's routine."

But the Republican National Committee is demanding answers, too. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson sent a letter to the state party last week asking that any leftover national money be returned so the party can cover expenses on the recount battles in Florida and New Mexico.