A Mixed Verdict For Millionaires On Primary Day

Tuesday was a pretty good day for self-funded political candidates, as two out of three big-spending millionaires won primaries in Connecticut, and a battle of deep-pocketed Democrats in Minnesota ended with department-store heir Mark Dayton declaring victory. But in a sign that cash can't guarantee victory, several millionaires wound up with lighter wallets and no nomination yesterday, and a Tea Party insurgent in Colorado rode small donations to victory over a better-funded establishment candidate.

The days' big winner was Connecticut senatorial hopeful and former wrestling exec Linda McMahon, who burned through $22 million on her way to an easy Republican primary victory – or nearly $400 for every vote -- and has vowed to spend another $30 million to beat Democrat Richard Blumenthal in November. Also in Connecticut, former ambassador Thomas Foley won a narrow victory in the GOP gubernatorial primary after loaning his own campaign $3 million.

Greenwich cable entrepreneur Ned Lamont, however, dropped $9 million in a losing bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nod. Connecticut electoral laws aided his opponent, Daniel Malloy, allowing him to draw on state funds to close the funding gap with Lamont; the same laws aided Fedele, who came within five points of Tom Foley in the Republican contest. Ned Lamont has now spent $26 million of his personal fortune running for public office without securing one, having used $17 million on an unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, the self-funder who spent the least triumphed. Mark Dayton, Hudson department-store heir and former Senator, spent $3 million on a largely self-financed campaign to win the Democratic primary for governor. But Dayton won by only a point over the underfunded Margaret Kelliher, and lawyer Matt Entenza spent $4.5 million of his own money to come in a distant third.

A candidate who relied on small donations actually beat a better-funded candidate in Colorado. Tea Party favorite Ken Buck defeated Jane Norton in the Colorado senate primary though Norton had the backing of the GOP party establishment and the U.S Chamber of Commerce.

The Minnesota and Connecticut millionaires are among dozens of self-financed candidates across the country trying to take advantage of a public mood that could favor political outsiders this November. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 35 Republicans and seven Democrats have each contributed at least $500,000 to their campaigns for U.S. House and Senate races. The large number of Republican self-financed candidates reflects a concerted effort on the part of GOP leaders to recruit wealthy candidates after being outspent by Democrats in recent election cycles.

Campaign observers say the fate of this year's unusual crop of self-funders has the potential to shape political campaigns and the recruitment of candidates for years to come.

"There is a very clear deterrent effect with wealthy self-financers -- they tend to push a lot of other types of candidates out of the field," said Jennifer Steen, a political science professor at Arizona State University and former campaign manager who has studied the impact of self-funded campaigns.

That scenario played out in May when Simmons, at one time considered the favorite to win the GOP nomination in the Connecticut Senate race, suspended his campaign, citing "the mathematical reality of competing against an opponent with unlimited financial resources." Simmons re-entered the campaign in late July.

Other top self-funders include billionaire real-estate investor Jeff Greene, who has forked over $5.8 million to win the Democratic nomination for the open Senate seat in Florida; hospital entrepreneur Rick Scott, who has spent $22 million to win the GOP nod in the same race; and former E-Bay executive Meg Whitman, who Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a Republican who has sunk $5.5 million into her bid to unseat Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer.

Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman has dropped $91 million of her own cash into her run as a Republican candidate for governor in California, poising her campaign to become the largest self-financed bid of the season.

Of course, spending tens of millions of dollars of your own cash to run for office does not guarantee a win.

Historically, self-financed candidates have a lower rate of winning elections than traditional candidates. Dave Levinthal, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said McMahon's victory Tuesday makes her "an exception to the overriding, but little-known rule of politics: that self-financed candidates typically lose."

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One study by the non-profit National Institute on Money in State Politics found that in the last nine years, only 11 percent of the self-financed candidates who have run for state and federal office have made it into office. While polls have shown Greene and Scott leading their respective races in Florida, some polls have shown those leads narrowing recently. Last week, Republican George Flinn dropped $2.9 million on a U.S. House primary in Tennessee and lost badly.

A strong anti-incumbent wave this fall could help some of this year's batch of self-financers buck that poor track record and motivate both political parties to step up their efforts to seek out more wealthy candidates for future cases. "This current election cycle could … prove somewhat different," said Levinthal, because several of the wealthy candidates are running strong campaigns. He cited McMahon, Greene, Fiorina and Whitman. The potential for a successful self-funding boomlet concerns campaign finance watchdogs.

"We run the risk of having a body that looks less and less like America," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of CRP.

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