IN ERA of budget-busting campaigns, candidates turning to e-mail as cheap, fast tool

Thursday, August 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LANSING, Mich. (AP) _ Michigan Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus hasn't officially announced he's running for governor. But every so often, the state Republican Party sends out an e-mail on his accomplishments to 10,000 potential supporters.

Massachusetts Treasurer Shannon O'Brien has an aide collecting e-mail addresses she can use in her Democratic gubernatorial race. The state Senate minority leader in West Virginia used e-mail last year to respond to negative attacks and organize volunteers in his successful re-election bid.

In an era of budget-busting TV campaign ads, rising mail rates and high-priced pollsters, e-mail's cheapness and speed are making it a must-have campaign tool.

``To me, it's an equalizer,'' said state Sen. Loren Bennett, a Republican using e-mail in his 2002 campaign for Michigan secretary of state. ''It doesn't matter how many resources you have, because the cost is virtually nonexistent.''

Candidates know e-mail lists can't match the number of voters reached by campaign ads or media stories. But e-mails help them quickly communicate with people tuned in to the campaign, ready to show up at a rally, volunteer at headquarters or share a flattering article with a dozen friends.

``If you're running for governor, if you're running for Congress ... if you're running for Senate, you are aggressively going for voters through e-mail,'' said Steve Kantor, president of Washington-based Gnossos Software Inc., who expects e-mail will be widely used to get out the vote in 2002.

Michigan GOP spokesman Sage Eastman said e-mail gives campaigns a way to immediately counter negative press reports, opponents' ads and even political gaffes.

When the White House and Republican National Committee needed examples of how people planned to use their federal tax refund checks, Eastman sent out an e-mail. Within three hours, he had more than 200 replies.

``With virtually no cost, we can have 10,000 people cranked up to write letters to the editor by morning. That's been a lot of phone calls in years past,'' Eastman said.

West Virginia state Sen. Vic Sprouse, the only Republican to win countywide last year in his Democratic district, credits the win in part to mobilizing volunteers and countering attacks through e-mail.

``It really was a good tool,'' said Sprouse, who sent e-mail to about 1,500 people.

In this year's GOP primary for New Jersey governor, part of Bret Schundler's successful strategy involved sending e-mail to 35,000 people, many of them members of groups that agreed with his stands opposing abortion and supporting gun rights.

Four years ago, candidates running for governor in New Jersey and Virginia usually had Web sites but used e-mail only sparingly, said Bob Sommer, executive vice president of The MWW Group, a national public relations firm.

That's changed as e-mail has woven its way into the lives of twenty-somethings, their parents and their grandparents.

Kena Hudson, spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party, cautions there can be too much of a good thing. The party is quick to take people off e-mail lists if they ask and limits e-mails to avoid clogging subscribers' mailboxes, she said.

For Steve Westly, a former e-Bay executive now running for state controller in California, the trick is to target supporters.

E-mail lets ''the people who have met you contact their friends and say, `Steve is the kind of guy we want to support,''' said Westly, a Democratic National Committee member from Palo Alto. ``It's got to be personal.''

The Michigan Democratic Party sends out an informational e-mail to about 2,000 Democrats statewide three times a week.

``You can read it whenever you want ... send it out to your friends ... add or delete what you want. There's so much more you can do with an e-mail than with a fax,'' party spokesman Dennis Denno said.

Candidates say they still have to shake hands, make speeches and raise money if they want to win. E-mail gives them a chance to send those speeches and appeals for cash electronically.

Best of all, they can do it for almost nothing. Especially in the Michigan gubernatorial race, where candidates who accept public funds are limited to spending $2 million in the general election.

Even in states without campaign limits, e-mail is an asset: It can link supporters long distances apart in large states.

The Montana GOP uses e-mail to get bulletins to party activists. The Montana Democratic Party uses it in part to counter opinions on conservative talk radio shows.