Two super-wealthy political neophytes are attempting major primary election upsets in Florida Tuesday, and their performance could provide an early look at the prospects for similar candidates around the country.
Billionaire real estate mogul Jeff Greene and super-rich healthcare executive Rick Scott have both vastly outspent their rivals in the races for U.S. Senate and governor. Greene, who is looking to take down an establishment Democrat, Rep. Kendrick Meek, in that party's senate primary, has spent $23 million, according to published reports. Scott, who is after the Republican nomination for governor, has spent a whopping $39 million -- five times that of his GOP rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum.
The two men are part of a bumper crop of millionaire (and billionaire) political candidates this fall, most of whom are tapping their enormous bank accounts to mount serious challenges to more traditional, establishment candidates.
Included in this well-heeled group is Linda McMahon, whose fortune as part of pro-wrestling's power couple has been fuel for a U.S. Senate bid in Connecticut. Billionaire Meg Whitman has dipped into her E-Bay fortune to blanket the airwaves in the race for California governor. Republican Carly Fiorina is also running in California, using her personal wealth to underwrite her senate bid.
Tomorrow's Florida primaries will serve as an early barometer on the potency of wealthy self-funded political candidates this year. They will test the willingness of voters straining under the financial pressures of the down economy to vote for candidates who live opulent lifestyles replete with mega-mansions and gargantuan yachts.
"They have the argument that they are not beholden to anyone because it's their own money," said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance expert in Washington. "But they also face the argument they are trying to buy a seat that should not be for sale to rich people." Over the past several months, the vast holdings and personal lives of both Greene and Scott have become grist for political attacks.
For Greene, who made his fortune betting that the subprime mortgage bubble would burst, the most damaging details have stemmed from tales about the travels of his 145-foot yacht, the Summerwind, and from his friendships with such celebrities as boxer Mike Tyson and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
Eye-popping local newspaper reports, including one earlier this month in the St. Petersburg Times, unearthed descriptions of Greene's yachting misadventures that reportedly included a visit to Cuba (not a good move for a Florida pol) that Greene aides later said was for mechanical reasons, and a Black Sea cruise that allegedly involved Tyson, sex parties, drugs, and a group of bikini-clad women in Romania. Some of those allegations came from a Tyson interview with Sports Illustrated that the boxer later amended in subsequent interviews. Tyson made it clear he did not mean that drugs were consumed aboard the yacht.
"There's a million people not working in Florida. Why are we talking about the yacht all the time?'' Greene told the newspaper. "I care too much about my country to spend all my time talking about a yacht and Mike Tyson. Nobody cares about that except you."
Attention also focused on Scott's vast holdings, which came in part from his time as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, the hospital chain that paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history. Disclosure forms he filed with the state describe $218 million in investments and a gulf-front Naples-area mansion he bought for $11 million and a separate yacht garage just a few blocks down the road. A review of the records by the local Marco Eagle newspaper listed Scott's interests in vast range of companies, including a Tennessee-based bowling alley chain, a social networking web site that targets Hispanics, and firms that deal in farm equipment, plastics, semi-conductors and airplane components.
Both Scott and Greene have seen results for the money they pumped into their respective campaigns. Polling has shown both primary campaigns drawing close at times. The website Pollster.com, which tracks and aggregates public polling, has shown both men dipping behind their chief rivals in recent days. But local newspapers have described polling in both races as erratic, and considers the outcomes to be tough to predict.
While New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might be a notable exception, neither man has history on his side. "Being rich and using personal wealth doesn't guarantee winning," Wertheimer noted. "And in fact many self-funded candidates do not win."