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Campaign watch: Candidates who dig into their own pockets

money in pocket

Looking for a fresh campaign finance story? Track monies spent by self-funded candidates.

Much has been made about money going to candidates seeking public office this year. But what about money flowing in another direction – money coming from the candidates? Whether it is for local, state or federal office, a sizable number of very wealthy candidates are digging into their own pockets and funding their own campaigns.

Perhaps it is the combination of ego, wealth and a burning desire to hold public office, but well-heeled candidates are able to avoid the whole time-consuming and often humbling process of meeting with donors and asking for money. Instead, by writing a check to themselves, they are freed from these constraints and can get on with the business of campaigning. Self-funded candidates provide another angle for reporters interested in covering campaign finance to pursue.

Open Secrets, the website that maintains campaign finance data, estimates that federal office-seekers have, so far, spent $130 million of their own money to gain public office in 2012 elections. Of course, some of those candidates have since fallen by the wayside, eliminated in primary races in spite of their fat wallets. One of the most notable was Texas businessman and the state’s Lt. Governor, David Dewhurst, who has a net worth of $177 million. He put $11 million of his own money into his primary bid for to be his state’s Republican U.S. Senate nominee and lost to a Tea Party favorite.

On first glance, funding one’s own campaign should seem to be an ideal situation. Not only does it free wealthy candidates from having to beg for dollars, it also frees them from federal and state limits on the size of campaign donations. While campaign contributions from individuals to candidates, the political parties and political action committees are capped at several thousands of dollars, a rich candidate can pour unlimited amounts of money into his or her own race.

And they have. A study by The National Institute of Money in State Politics found that between the years 2000 and 2009, candidates for state offices alone donated a total of $925 million. It also found, that money doesn’t always breed success. The same report found that self-funded state-level candidates won only 11 percent of the time. The same low success rate was found by Open Secrets, when it looked at self-funded federal candidates in the 2010 mid-term elections. It found that less than one in five were victorious.

One reason offered for this poor showing is that when a candidate relies on self-funding, he misses out on all the small meetings with donors and voters that enable him to get his message out early, get useful feedback and practice developing campaign themes.
Perhaps the biggest deep pocketed loser – in terms of sheer numbers – was Meg Whitman, the chief executive of HP and former chief executive of EBay, who spent $140 million of her own money in 2010 on a failed effort to be elected Republican governor of California. That same year, Linda McMahon, a Republican and an executive at World Wrestling Entertainment, spent $50 of her own money and lost her U.S. Senate race. This year, McMahon is trying again, although has put in a more modest $8.8 million of her own money so far.

Mitt Romney

By Flickr user BU Interactive News

Other notable check-writers have been Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who put $44 million from his sizable net worth into his failed 2008 bid for his party’s nomination. This year, he’s letting others pay the bills and has given only $52,500 to his campaign so far. One self-funder who has been both a winner and a loser is Jon Corzine of New Jersey, a Democrat. He self-funded his 2005 bid to be governor of that state to the tune of $42 million and won. In 2009, he put in $27 million of his own money in a re-election bid that failed.

But the big winner – and the biggest check writer – of them all is billionaire Michael Bloomberg, New York’s three-time Republican mayor. He poured $74 million of his own money and narrowly won in 2001. He spent another $85 million and won in 2005, and upped the ante and paid $90 million to win again in 2009. That totals just under $250 million.

But, if you are a billionaire 16 times over, as Bloomberg is, writing checks like these – ones that add up to a quarter-billion dollars – will hardly put a dent in his lifestyle and allow him to hold onto a job that he loves.

About the Author

Leslie Wayne is an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University and New York University. She's a former award-winning business reporter at The New York Times where she covered Wall Street, politics, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and the aerospace and military industries. Wayne was selected as the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Business Journalism at Arizona State University in 2010.

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