The Influence Industry

Money doesn't buy many wins for self-funded candidates

Americans cast their ballots Tuesday in House, Senate and statewide races.
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:18 AM

Wealthy future candidates, take note: It turns out that most of the time, money really can't buy you political happiness.

Tuesday's midterms featured an unusually large crop of moguls who sought to ease their way into power by pouring millions of their own dollars into their campaigns. In most cases, they failed spectacularly.

The most obvious - and jaw-dropping - example came in the California gubernatorial race, where Republican Meg Whitman spent $175 million of her eBay fortune to lose badly to former Democratic governor Jerry Brown. That works out to about $57 for each of the roughly 3 million votes she won.

As GOP consultant Alex Castellanos quipped on CNN: "I could have lost that race for only $80 million."

Although Whitman shattered all previous records, she was hardly alone. Other rich losers this year included former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who gave or loaned her Connecticut Senate campaign $47 million; former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who tapped into personal accounts for $5.5 million; and GOP businessman John Raese, who used $4.7 million of his own money in losing the Senate race in West Virginia.

These are not isolated cases. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that out of 58 candidates who used $500,000 or more of their money on federal races in 2010, fewer than one in five won. Eight of the top 10 self-funders this cycle lost, with only GOP Senate challenger Ron Johnson of Wisconsin ($8.2 million) and House candidate Scott Rigell of Virginia ($2.4 million) emerging victorious.

The results continue a long tradition of ambitious but failed bids for political office by self-financing tycoons from Ross Perot to Steve Forbes, who frequently have difficulty translating their financial advantages into votes. Since 1990, only five of the top 20 self-financed candidates have won, according to the center's data.

"Self-financing candidates generally do poorly, and Election 2010 is certainly no exception," center spokesman David Levinthal said.

Certainly there have been exceptions over the years. Successful politicians who tapped their personal fortunes to win office include California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). The biggest example in 2010 is former hospitals executive Rick Scott, who spent or borrowed nearly $75 million of his own money to beat Democrat Alex Sink in the Florida governor's race. Even then, Scott finished only about a point ahead of Sink.

Arizona State University professor Jennifer A. Steen, who authored a book on self-financing candidates, said wealthy politicos who win can thank luck as much as money. Scott, for example, clearly benefited from this year's broad GOP wave and a poorly run campaign by Sink.

"He should have beaten her by a much larger margin, considering the environment," Steen said. "It's not very good bang for the buck."

On the federal level, the record-holder remains Perot, who spent $63.5 million on his independent bid for the presidency in 1992, according to Federal Election Commission data. The money earned him about 20 percent of the popular vote, no electoral votes and a distant third-place finish behind Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Democrat Jon S. Corzine spent $60 million to win a Senate seat in 2000, but pouring cash into his campaign failed to win him reelection as New Jersey's governor last year.

In Illinois in 2004, securities trader Blair Hull spent $24 million of his fortune on a bid for the Senate, only to be beaten in the Democratic primary by a relative unknown named Barack Obama.

In general, Steen said, self-financed candidates tend to lose simply because they don't have experience in the brass-knuckle world of politics, which includes knowing how to connect with voters and maintain such relationships.

"You can call it arrogance or naivete, to be more charitable," Steen said. "They don't tend to learn the lessons of past self-financers, and they don't tend to recognize their own deficiencies. The track record is typically bad."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company