- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2010

With a fortune built on the profits from cage matches and pay-per-view “smackdowns,” professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon, a Republican, can easily afford the $50 million she has pledged to spend to win Connecticut’s Senate race this year.

But recent elections show that having big money is no clear path to electoral success, and wealthy self-funded candidates such as Mrs. McMahon, California Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina and California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman are finding so far that deep pockets can’t even guarantee them a lead in the polls.

The winning candidate in more than 90 percent of the 2008 House and Senate races was also the candidate who spent the most money. However, the record for self-funded millionaires and billionaires is far less impressive, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Of the 51 self-funded millionaires the Washington-based group counted in 2008 races, 37 either lost or quit their races before Election Day. And roughly 41 percent of them never got past the primaries, including California developer and former Republican congressman Doug Ose, who spent $4.1 million in a failed - and expensive - comeback effort.

“A lot of times people enter these races - for the right or wrong reasons - but not with the right skill sets to run a winning campaign,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’ executive director. “While money is essential in a race, it is not a panacea for an inadequate or bad campaign. You need charisma, good ideas, and you have to do the legwork.”

The template for buying a race may have been set by Democrat Jon Corzine, who pumped a record-shattering $62 million of the fortune he made at Goldman Sachs into his winning Senate race in 2000, and tapped his bank account again to win the New Jersey governorship six years later. Media magnate Michael R. Bloomberg raised the bar by dropping $109 million for his re-election campaign as New York City mayor in 2009.

But the record Mr. Corzine broke was held by California multimillionaire Michael Huffington, who lost his 1994 Senate race to Democrat Dianne Feinstein. And Mr. Bloomberg limped to an unimpressive four-point win against a hopelessly outspent opponent in his latest race. Massive fortunes also did not translate into Election Day victory for presidential hopefuls such as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes.

According to Brigham Young researcher Adam R. Brown, “For every Corzine, there’s a [Dick] DeVos - who spent record amounts in his 2006 attempt to unseat Michigan’s incumbent governor, only to lose by an embarrassingly wide margin.”

Mr. Brown, in a 2009 survey of the poor record of self-financed candidates in gubernatorial elections, concluded that the ability to persuade other people to give money was a far better indicator of an effective candidate.

“When it comes to influencing voters, a candidate’s ability to raise money matters far more than her ability to spend it,” he wrote.

Not that the very wealthy don’t keep trying.

Both parties in Florida are dealing with well-heeled interlopers as billionaire Palm Beach developer Jeff Greene is taking on Rep. Kendrick B. Meek in the Democratic Senate primary, and health care entrepreneur Rick Scott - after spending heavily on ads to try to defeat President Obama’s health care law - last month entered the GOP primary to challenge state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the race for governor.

In California, the National Institute on Money in State Politics recently reported that Ms. Whitman’s investment in her own gubernatorial campaign - now at $64 million - is by itself more than the combined personal contributions made by every candidate who ran for governor in the United States in the 2007-2008 cycle.

But Ms. Whitman, a former eBay CEO, has yet to nail down the GOP nomination against fellow Silicon Valley executive Steve Poizner, who has spent a more modest $22 million of his own money in the race and has been closing the gap in the polls ahead of the June 8 primary.

Though Mrs. McMahon and Mrs. Fiorina, a Republican, fit the profile of the self-funded millionaire, aides insists their candidates are not running vanity campaigns. The aides have also tried to brand their candidates as part of the emerging group of “outsider candidate,” far removed from Washington’s insidious culture of waste, abuse and bailouts.

Mrs. Fiorina, 55, started her professional career as a receptionist and temporary secretary before eventually becoming the chief executive officer of the Hewlett-Packard Co. in 1999. She was forced out six years later, but reportedly received roughly $20 million.

“Carly knows what it is to work hard and work smart,” press secretary Amy Thomas said. “This is the year of the outsider.”

Ms. Thomas also noted that roughly half of Ms. Fiorina’s $5.3 million in campaign money comes from outside contributors. Mrs. Fiorina has lent her campaign $2.5 million, according to the most recent FEC filings.

Mrs. McMahon, former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive officer, now has roughly $14.7 million in campaign funds, including $557,382 of her own money and $14 million she lent to herself.

That’s plenty of money, considering the average House or Senate candidate this year will each spend about $577,288, based on a Federal Election Commission report on the 2008 congressional races.

Supporters point out that Mrs. McMahon earned her money in the marketplace - helping husband Vince McMahon run the family business. She even played bit roles in her husband’s productions and was there when the company went public for $1 billion in 1991.

“She built a billion-dollar company and has endured the embarrassment of bankruptcy, which is why she can relate to somebody who is one or two paychecks from losing everything,” campaign spokesman Ed Patru said. “She is not the typical self-funded candidate who is under the impression they can win a race by waging a war on the airwaves. They’re not prepared for the blocking and tackling of politics.”

Mrs. McMahon leads former Rep. Robert R. Simmons by 10 points in the Aug. 8 primary, according to the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll. But polls put her well behind Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in the November election to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd.

In California, Mrs. Fiorina is not even leading her primary race. She trails former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell in the three-way race for the Republican Senate nomination for the right to face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. The third Republican primary candidate is conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Ms. Krumholz is reserving judgment on both candidates until after the November elections.

“They have interesting portfolios beyond the money, but it’s hard to say if every box is checked,” she said. “The voters will ultimately decide.”

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