Moreover, county Republicans, who routinely have been outspent by ratios as high as 8-1, nearly kept pace this year. Camden County GOP officials said they spent more than $100,000 on the freeholder races. Much of that money came from the Republican State Committee, which chipped in more than $56,000 for glossy campaign brochures that attacked the Democratic candidates as profligate spenders who had increased county taxes and presided over a government rife with patronage.
But the GOP message didn't resonate with voters. The Democrats retained the three freeholder seats in contention and won another year of unanimous control of the board.
``We creamed them,'' said David A. Luthman, county Democratic Party chairman.
And they did it while spending significantly less money than usual.
``It was a decision that I made based on the need to restore some kind of financial sanity to our party,'' Luthman said.
Perhaps none too soon, for the party is more than $336,000 in debt. This year, the county Democratic organization even had to rely on $440,000 in loans from the party faithful just to pay its bills. The Democrats lined up 20 people to take out personal loans of $5,000 to $25,000 from Community National Bank and then lend the money to the party, which, in turn, paid the interest on the loans.
In previous campaigns, the party spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on network television ads, but it stuck to cable television this year and spent only about $20,000. The party also curbed spending on high-priced consultants and pollsters.
In earlier years, county Democrats spent more than $90,000 on media consultants and costly polling by the Washington-based firm that has handled President Clinton's campaigns. This year, the party hired that same pollster, but for substantially less work, spending about $15,000.
Why the cutbacks? For one thing, because control of the freeholder board was not at stake in this election, Democrats said they didn't need to invest heavily in the races. For another, the party must spend much of its money to maintain its year-round headquarters and pay its six-member staff, whose salaries cost about $5,000 every two weeks.
On top of that, there are signs that the Democrats' impressive fund-raising machine has slowed down. Since 1993, when new campaign finance laws placed limits on annual contributions and curbed the amount political parties could borrow from banks, the county Democrats have had to work harder to fill the party's coffers.
To be sure, its list of contributors remains a veritable who's who of county vendors, consultants and employees. But many of the donations are smaller than they used to be.
Hence the loans. Party benefactors included a host of prominent Democrats, including Luthman, former party chairman George E. Norcross 3d, State Sen. John H. Adler, State Sen. Wayne R. Bryant, Assemblyman Joseph Roberts, Freeholder Director Jeffrey L. Nash, Freeholders Castiglione-Degan, Scott Goldberg and Frank Spencer, and County Clerk James Beach.
An assortment of lesser-known party loyalists also made loans, including county counsel Robert Millenky; Barbara Tambussi, the wife of Democratic Party lawyer William M. Tambussi; Cherry Hill Democratic Party chairman Richard A. Shapiro; Kevin Covert, the former chairman of the Burlington County Democratic Party; John B. Kearney, the solicitor to several Democratic-controlled towns; lawyer Fredric B. Weinstein, a longtime party supporter; and Brian Eisen, a $30,876-a-year employee in the county's constituent services office.
The party has paid back some of the loans and has chipped away at others. Luthman said the party hoped to repay all of the debt soon so that the party could start next year in the black.