Self-funded candidates struggle in Senate races

August 16, 2012

Being a government outsider with the ability to rely on personal money to finance a campaign isn't proving to be a silver bullet this election cycle.

Across the country, self-funding political newcomers from the private sector have struggled in Senate races. Two have lost in less than two weeks in Missouri and Wisconsin, while a third appears likely to lose in Arizona later this month.


John Brunner lost in Missouri despite spending millions (Jeff Roberson -- Associated Press)

In Missouri last week, John Brunner, a first-time candidate for office lost in the Republican primary despite spending more than $7.5 million of his own money. Brunner made his money heading Vi-Jon, a health and beauty product supply company that has been in his family for decades.

This week in Wisconsin, political newcomer Eric Hovde, a millionaire who made his money in the financial sector, finished second behind former governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican with deep ties to the party's establishment wing. Through late July, Hovde had poured about $5 million of his own money into his campaign account.

In Arizona, Wil Cardon is making his first run for office after a career largely spent working for his family's real estate investment firm. Cardon, who found early campaign success after running ads raising his name ID and hitting Rep. Jeff Flake (R) for being a past supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, appears to have hit some speed bumps in the closing stage of the race. Cardon reportedly went dark on the airwaves at the beginning of the state's crucial early voting period. And while he responded by saying he was filming a new ad, most of the the momentum in the race appears to be with Flake.

So what gives? At a time when incumbency can be a dubious distinction and congressional approval has reached a record low, fresh faces with no baggage should be well-positioned to score big wins in statewide races.

One snag has been crowded candidate fields. Both Brunner and Hovde ran in primary campaigns featuring three competitive candidates. Three-way races can end in very unexpected ways, and predicting where votes will move is not an exact science.

What's more, in Hovde's case, he was running against one candidate backed by the influential anti-tax group Club For Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and another who enjoyed nearly universal name recognition in the state. Brunner, meanwhile, had to contend with Democrats indirectly helping along the eventual GOP nominee, Rep. Todd Akin.

Along the way, the first-time campaigners also experienced their own stumbles. When candidates use their business background as the foundation of their campaign message, negative news about their company becomes difficult to deal with. Brunner, for example, was forced to confront a tough story about his company laying off workers.

It's tough being the new kid on the block. Over the last four elections, only six senators have been elected without having previously held some kind of elected position.

All that said, it hasn't been all bad news for self-funders from the private sector this cycle. Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million of her own money in 2010, sealed up the Republican nomination in Connecticut on Tuesday for the second straight cycle.  And self-funding businessman Tom Smith is the Republican nominee in Pennsylvania against Sen. Robert Casey (D).

But neither is currently expected to win in November, meaning that another Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) -- a newcomer from the private sector who won in 2010 -- likely won't be found in this year's Senate class.

The year 2010 was also the year self-funding Republican Rick Scott was elected governor of Florida. Wealthy Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina also won the GOP nominations for governor and Senate in California (though both lost the general election).

It's clear that level of success isn't being repeated this cycle. What isn't clear is who will be back for a second bite at the apple in a later cycle. Money buys name recognition; and access to cash also eliminates a key barrier to entering a campaign. McMahon is back this year. Hovde, Brunner and Cardon (should he lose) could resurface in the future as well.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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