Rich Candidates, Poor House Districts

Poliquin is running for Congress in Maine. (Meredith Dake/CQ Roll Call)

Mo' money, mo' problems? That’s the case for a few deep-pocketed House candidates, whose affluence has become a political issue in the districts they seek this November.  

Wealth is commonplace in Congress, where one-third of the members are worth more than $1 million . But this cycle, at least four candidates running in competitive House districts boast a personal net worth in excess of $8 million, according to financial disclosure forms. And in the final months of the midterms, their opponents have found ways to use their means against them.  If this sounds familiar, it's because it's the same playbook that sunk Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Last cycle, Democrats successfully used Romney's estimated $250 million net worth — along with his career as a venture capitalist — to convince middle-class voters he didn't have their best interests at heart. Hillary Rodham Clinton, considering a second presidential bid, has also taken heat recently for talking about financial struggles, despite the hefty speaking fees she earns and her relatively newfound riches. "Middle class people do not begrudge people who make money. As long as they're honest and hard working, everyone aspires to be that guy or that woman," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone of wealthy candidates. "It’s when you either are screwing someone else or taking advantage of someone else, or once you get there are taking care of the rich rather than the middle class."  

Four candidates on the ballot this fall are being forced to defend their wealth:

  • Former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, a Republican running against state Sen. Emily Cain in Maine’s open 2nd District. His net worth is at least $8.97 million, according to his personal financial disclosure report.
  • Businessman Stewart Mills, also a Republican, running against Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s 8th District. Mills' net worth is at least $39.12 million.
  • Former Randolph mayor and insurance company owner Tom MacArthur, a Republican running against Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard in New Jersey’s open 3rd District. His net worth is at least $26.99 million.
  • Venture capitalist Sean Eldridge, a Democrat, running against GOP Rep. Chris Gibson in New York’s 19th District. He's worth at least $104.48 million.

All four have already fielded criticism on their assets to varying degrees.  

Eldridge has faced relentless attacks on his personal fortune from the National Republican Congressional Committee.  

Dubbing him "$ean Eldridge," the NRCC called out the candidate for carpetbagging into the Hudson Valley district, buying a $2 million home there, and investing some of his immense wealth in banks, oil and tobacco companies he criticizes on the trail .  

MacArthur also took flack for how he earned his millions in an ugly GOP primary to succeed retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J. MacArthur's primary opponent, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, said insurance adjusters affiliated with MacArthur made families "jump through hoops" to receive insurance money after their homes and properties were destroyed from a natural disaster .  

It's an attack line that Belgard has already started to use against MacArthur in the general election. In this south New Jersey district, many of the voters faced similar battles with insurance companies after their homes were decimated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.  

"He got rich by helping insurance companies shortchange the victims of hurricanes and wildfires — no one should expect him to start standing up for the middle class now that he's running for Congress," Belgard's campaign manager Hannah Ledford said in a statement.  

Nolan began criticizing Mills' wealth — derived from his family's popular chain of sport and farming equipment stores peppered through the Midwest — calling him a "one percenter" who is “personally offended … that the rich should pay more taxes.” It's an attack that could work in this district, where the median household income is $46,692 — the lowest of the Gopher State's eight House districts — according to the most recent U.S. Census.  

Poliquin also faced attacks on his wealth in a Republican primary from his opponent, former state Sen. Kevin Raye. Raye labeled Poliquin as a self-funding Wall Street hedge fund manager who could not relate to working-class Mainers.  

Cain has yet to use that attack line against Poliquin now that the race has moved on the to general election.  

To be sure, attacking rich candidates doesn't always work. Eight freshmen joined Roll Call’s list of the 50 richest members of Congress after the 2012 elections, with a minimum net worth ranging from $9 million to $68.4 million.  

And all four of the candidates are already trying to inoculate themselves from attacks on their affluence either by telling rags-to-riches success stories, describing themselves as job creators, or touting their philanthropic endeavors.  

In his first ad for the general election contest, MacArthur's family and friends in the community describe him as a man who ascended from middle-class roots to be a successful businessman who gives back to his community.  

"My mom and dad don't talk about it a lot, but they reach out to the forgotten: victims of Sandy, wheelchairs for those who can't afford it, soup kitchens, Feed the Children, Habitat for Humanity, wounded vets and a school for AIDS orphans," MacArthur's son, David, says in a minute-long bio spot.  

Mills already released a handful of biographical ads, one of which tells the story of a charity event he helps fund in his community for women struggling against domestic violence.  

In a July 10 interview with CQ Roll Call, Poliquin said he rose from a middle-class upbringing and is proud of his success.  

"I look at success and hard work as something that we should celebrate in America, we should celebrate in the 2nd District, we should celebrate in Maine, and we don't have enough of that," Poliquin said. "We have people attacking hard work and that's wrong, that's anti-American."  

Eldridge has touted his company's efforts to fund businesses that create jobs in the New York district he is seeking to represent.  

But it’s hard for these same candidates to run from their wealth — especially when they put some of their own funds into their campaigns.  

Aside from Mills, all three have poured hundreds of thousands of personal funds into their campaigns. MacArthur spent more than $2 million from his own pocket on his race. That financial injection makes the candidate vulnerable to criticism he is trying to buy the seat.  

It's a line the NRCC is already using against Eldridge, who had put nearly $1 million of his own funds into the race as of early June.  

But it might not matter in the end.  

Just ask GOP Reps. Vance McAllister of Louisiana and Curt Clawson of Florida, who each spent hundreds of thousands of their own fortunes on their bids and won special elections earlier this year.  

"I think the clear difference maker in self-funders in congressional races is connection to community,” said Guy Harrison, a national Republican operative. "If you have made your money, given back to the community and are not trying to randomly buy a congressional seat, you have a much better chance of winning."  

Jay Hunter contributed to this report.  Related Stories: West Virginia Newcomer Battles Carpetbagger Label Former Congresswoman Loans $500,000 to Her Comeback Campaign   Members in Waiting: The 20 Candidates Headed to D.C. Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.