The Millionaire Smackdown: Wealthy Candidates Try To Buy The Ballot In Connecticut

Linda McMahon and other rich pols show the impact of self-financed campaigns.

August 05, 2010, 4:48 PM

Aug. 6, 2010 — -- It's a phenomenon common to the homestretch of every hotly contested political race: the endless phone calls, mailings, and campaign commercials that inundate voters in the final days before the election. But a cluster of wealthy candidates in Connecticut has kicked that barrage into overdrive this week as the state's August 10th primary draws near, pouring tens of millions of dollars from their own deep pockets into their campaigns.

"I thought it was an L.L. Bean catalog," said Connecticut voter Karen Rogers, describing a glossy 14-page mailer featuring multi-millionaire Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon posing in a brown cable-knit sweater with children against a colonial New England backdrop. "You can just tell she has a lot of money."

McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has burned through $21 million of her personal fortune in her bid for the US Senate, spending eight times more than her primary rivals, investment advisor Peter Schiff and former Congressman Rob Simmons, and 16 times more than her likely Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, according to campaign finance data from the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

In the Connecticut governor's race, meanwhile, two Greenwich millionaires are leading in the pre-primary polls. Democrat Ned Lamont, the cable television entrepreneur who tried to take Joe Lieberman's Senate seat in 2006, has poured more than $6.8 million into his run for office, while Republican Tom Foley, a private investor and former US Ambassador to Ireland, has loaned his own campaign $2 million, according to an ABC News review of state campaign finance filings.

The 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. 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.

Steen believes that self-financers' outsized spending can also create an "arms race effect" with opponents feeling the pressure to keep up.

"They end up spending more time trying to raise money, and less time doing other campaign activities like meeting with regular voters who aren't campaign contributors or interacting with citizens in other ways," says Steen. "I don't think that's so great for democracy."

In Connecticut, McMahon has sought to cast herself as the political outsider who will not be beholden to special interests. To underscore that message, her campaign made the decision to only accept small donations of a $100 or less.

McMahon leads a pack of 27 Republicans and five Democrats who have each contributed at least $500,000 currently in the running for House and Senate races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 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.

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, and former 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. 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.

A strong anti-incumbent wave this fall could help some of this year's crop 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. The potential for such a trend 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 the Center for Responsive Politics.

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