- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2009

It was a bad year for billionaires - at the polls, at least.

Candidates with deep pockets took it on the chin Tuesday, with Wall Street tycoon Gov. Jon Corzine getting clobbered in New Jersey and media mogul Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg eking out a surprisingly thin win in New York City.

Money remains the lifeblood of campaigning and a healthy bank account provides a good start for any candidate, but with high unemployment and economic uncertainty this year weighing on the electorate, voters appeared ready to punish the rich.

Mr. Corzine, who made a vast fortune as a Goldman Sachs executive before spending his way into the U.S. Senate and the governor’s office, plowed about $24 million - mostly his own money - into the campaign.

Despite being outspent nearly 3-to-1, Republican Chris Christie managed to win by more than 100,000 votes out of about 2.3 million cast - the first time in a dozen years a Republican captured the governor’s office in that solidly blue state.

The unofficial tally put Mr. Christie in the winning column by about 49 percent to 44 percent.

The race was dominated by concerns about New Jersey’s high taxes and high unemployment, though critics were quick to remind voters of Mr. Corzine’s Wall Street roots.

“I wonder if people were more concerned about his wealth buying attack ads than what it can buy in terms of turning out the vote,” Rutgers University political science professor Keesha Middlemass said.

She said voters in tough economic times are typically more concerned with their pocketbook issues than with a candidate’s pocketbook.

But in New York City, about 45 percent of voters said Mr. Bloomberg’s spending on the race was an important factor in how they cast their ballot, according to a New York Times exit poll.

Mr. Bloomberg, an independent, spent about $100 million of his own money, setting a record for the most expensive self-financed campaign in U.S. history. He outspent Democratic challenger Bill Thompson 15-to-1 and the mayor had been expected to win a third term in a landslide.

Instead, Mr. Bloomberg held on to the office in a 51 percent to 46 percent victory, despite the exit poll showing 7 of 10 voters approved of his job performance.

The campaign spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg - who only takes a $1 annual salary as mayor - brushed aside questions about a billionaire-backlash at the polls.

“In an election year that saw incumbents across the nation face incredible challenges, Mike took his vision to the people, and their response was to buck the national trend and continue the mayor’s record of independence, progress and results,” said Jill Hazelbaker. “Despite facing the worst environment for incumbents since 1994, Mike stood virtually alone among incumbents across the nation to win re-election. We feel really good about that.”

But Jim Barnett, spokesman for Republican Rob Simmon’s campaign for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, said the voter rebuke of fat-cat candidates this year is the start of a trend.

“Millionaire self-funders, beware,” he said, noting that his boss’s primary rival, Linda McMahon, has pledged to spend about as much of her own money as Mr. Corzine did in New Jersey.

Mr. Simmons and Mrs. McMahon, who with husband Vince McMahon made a fortune running World Wrestling Entertainment, are jockeying for nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

Mr. Dodd, chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, finds himself surprisingly vulnerable in the 2010 race following criticism of his close ties to and hefty campaign contribution from Wall Street.

Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, said resentment toward well-heeled candidates is just one factor that could influence voters.

“In general, a candidate is going to have to run a good campaign whether they have a million dollars or just two nickels to rub together,” he said. “Money can buy you advertising. Money can buy you staff and offices and handbills and mailers and boost your name recognition. But at the end of the day, you have to run a campaign that connects with voters.”

The Corzine campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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