With the cost of campaigns ballooning, political parties, and Republicans in particular, are increasingly turning to wealthy candidates who can fund their own bids. The only problem is that those self-funders generally lose.
The number of self-funded candidates rose from 78 in 1990 to highs of 223 in 2010 and 193 in 2012, according to an analysis by The Washington Times of candidates who financed the majority of their campaign costs. In previous decades, the partisan split was equal, but the recent rise has been fueled almost entirely by wealthy Republicans.
Yet the results aren’t encouraging.
Of 1,752 self-funded candidates in federal elections since 1990, only 42 have been elected — a success rate of just 2.4 percent.
“There are always some people that think they’ll beat those odds, and some will. But very, very few do,” said Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Last year saw prominent self-funder Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst lose his state’s Republican Senate primary to Ted Cruz, and saw beer heir Joseph Coors Jr. run as the GOP’s nominee for a Colorado House seat, though the $3.5 million he spent from his own funds didn’t carry him to victory in November.
Coal mining magnate Tom Smith secured the Republican nomination for the Senate in Pennsylvania last year but lost to incumbent Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. despite spending $16 million of his fortune.
And Linda McMahon, a pro wrestling executive, suffered her second straight defeat in a bid for Connecticut’s Senate seats, plunging $8.4 million of her own money into the two unsuccessful runs.
“Whether you have a billion dollars or 20, if the message you’re driving doesn’t resonate with the general electorate, you’re not going to win,” said Phil Singer, a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee official.
Each year, an average of 27 percent of Democratic self-funders and 22 percent of Republican self-funders have won their parties’ primaries. But in November, they nearly always fizzle.
Mrs. Krumholz said there is pressure for parties to “seriously consider people with ready money, even if they don’t have all of the other qualifications — ideas, charisma, hustle, a solid team.”
Sometimes parties run self-funders as placeholders in districts where they are not competitive, hoping that the candidate’s money can make the race closer and possibly force the national party committees to spend money to rescue their candidates.
“Parties often field a self-funded candidate to run when they think it’s hopeless,” Mrs. Krumholz said. The rise in self-funded candidates, then, may be tied to an increasingly polarized climate, with more Congressional districts now a lock for one party or the other.
With all the attempts, there have been a few successes. In 2010, Virginia Republican E. Scott Rigell won a House seat after spending $2.6 million of his own money, and won re-election in 2012. Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat, secured a seat in 2008 and has retained it with the help of $7.2 million from himself.
In 2000, dubbed the “year of the millionaire,” the Senate saw a record four self-funded candidates elected. Democrats Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Maria Cantwell of Washington won seats for the first time, while incumbent Herb Kohl of Wisconsin retained his with the help of $4.8 million in personal funds.
Mr. Corzine spent $60 million of his own money in that race—a personal funding record for Congressional candidates — and it likely provided him the edge that allowed him to squeak to victory with 50.1 percent of the vote.
For some who have already achieved success in business, a seat in Congress is just another trophy, said Mr. Singer.
“You can’t discount the role that vanity plays to a given candidate,” he said.
But with an arms-race style escalation causing every campaign to be more expensive than the last, and with politicians already exhausting supporters’ tolerance for fundraising pleas, those candidates are increasingly getting a second look.
Time or money
Meanwhile, the big money required to run for office deters some who don’t have that kind of money themselves from running for office.
“A lot of qualified people who aren’t named Bloomberg or Trump are going to say I don’t want to spend half my time groveling for campaign money,” Mr. Singer said.
But having the wealth to get out of that doesn’t always translate into political charisma, and may actually be a disadvantage for candidates who need to connect with average voters.
“You don’t know how a business guy is going to come across; they may not actually be well-suited for politics,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics. He said the wealthy can even have added baggage from their businesses that their opponents can use against them, not to mention that their wealth makes it harder for voters to relate to them.
Campaign finance restrictions may actually be pushing more wealthy people to run for office.
The law prohibits people from giving more than $5,200 directly to a politician, but there is a loophole: A candidate can give any amount to his own campaign.
“Before we had all these campaign finance regulations, rich people could give money to whoever the wanted and didn’t have to run themselves,” Mr. Keating said. “Steve Forbes would probably be the first to admit he wasn’t the best candidate to run,” he said, referring to the businessman who spent $76 million of his own money to run for president.
• Luke Rosiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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