Wither The Self-Funder?

Senate Races See Dearth Of Multimillionaires

Posted July 20, 2005 at 6:34pm

The Senate has been called a “millionaires’ club,” but if the current crop of 2006 Senate candidates is any indicator, it might become a little harder to find an actual millionaire there in the future.

So far, there is only one multimillionaire running for Senate who appears willing to devote significant resources of his own to his campaign: mall developer Kelly Doran (D). Two others are considered all but in, Safeco Corp. CEO Mike McGavick (R) in Washington and IDX Systems Corp. co-founder Richard Tarrant (R) in Vermont.

That is a far cry from cycles past.

Last year, at least a dozen multimillionaires made plays for Senate seats. In 2002, at least five did and in 2000, three were ushered into the Senate — Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Mark Dayton (D-Minn.).

Just a few cycles ago, in 1996, then-Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Kerrey (Neb.) had a crop of candidates dubbed “Kerrey’s merry millionaires.” And just last cycle, Corzine, who served as DSCC chairman, made the recruitment of candidates who could self-fund a priority.

And this cycle?

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is still trying to get Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon to run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) next year, and Democrats are high on developer Jim Pederson, who is mulling a challenge to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

But spokesmen for both campaign committees say that a candidate’s ability to self-fund is not a priority for party recruiters this cycle.

“Overall the goal of the committee is to find the best candidate, and that doesn’t necessarily mean someone who can self-fund — that brings a component, but there’s a lot more to a candidate than that,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. “There is no effort to find someone based solely on the level of self funding; it’s a total package.”

“Our focus is on getting the best candidates who can win into these races,” said DSCC spokesman Phil Singer, echoing his counterpart.

Perhaps the committees are haunted by the ghosts of millionaires past.

Last year, beer heir Pete Coors (R) crashed and burned in his effort to win Colorado’s open Senate seat, spending $1.2 million of his own money in the process.

Auto dealer Russ Darrow (R) and construction company executive Tim Michels (R), collectively spent almost $5.5 million in a futile effort to depose Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), ultimately handing the Senator his most decisive win yet. And then there was poor financier Blair Hull, who sank about $32 million into the Illinois Democratic primary and came in fourth.

“The political parties have reasoned that just because a person has either celebrity fame or fortune, it doesn’t mean they’re going to translate into a strong candidate for Senate,” said Brad Woodhouse, a former DSCC spokesman and ex-communications director to wealthy two-time North Carolina Senate loser Erskine Bowles (D). “Pete Coors is a good example — he looked good in TV commercials for his company but was pretty much a disaster on the campaign trail; in that case money didn’t buy the Republican Party happiness.”

Wealthy would-be candidates may look at the recent lack of success of self-funding candidates and decide not to fritter away their children’s’ inheritance.

“It really is a gamble,” said Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report. “Look at Blair Hull.”

Woodhouse said 2006 could be a particularly bad year for recruiting rich candidates because circumstances in the Senate have grown more caustic.

“There’s probably a sense among some self-funders that they just don’t want to join the acrimony in Washington,” he said. “They may decide it’s not worth spending the money to join a bitter [partisan] atmosphere.”

But the biggest reason for a decline in moguls-tuned-candidates — and the political committees’ seeming lack of interest in them — is 2002’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and its “millionaires’ amendment,” Duffy said.

There are fewer super-wealthy candidates “mostly because the incentive to recruit them is gone,” she said. “There were two things about the millionaires’ amendment that made putting your own money in a lot less palatable then it used to be.”

First is the provision that allows the opponents of self-funding candidates to raise significantly more money from individuals than they normally would be allowed to, Duffy said. But the kicker is the rule that says candidates can only repay themselves about $250,000.

“You really have to see it as an investment” to run now, she said.

Last year no one knew what to expect from BCRA and Democrats especially thought they would need wealthy candidates more than ever. But Democrats learned they could compete in a post-campaign finance reform era and have thrived, Woodhouse said.

“It seemed there was going to be more reliance on self-funders, but the parties have adapted and learned how to work within the new law, so they don’t need them as much,” he said.

Duffy said BCRA has definitely decreased the bang political parties get for their millionaires’ bucks.

“Committees used to actively recruit millionaires in states that were kind of a long shot for them,” she said. “There’s nothing in it for them now.”

Even with the rules changed, it seems there may always be a Herman Cain, the Godfather’s Pizza magnate who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Senate nod in Georgia, or a Jack Ryan (R), the Goldman Sachs trader turned inner-city school teacher who flamed out in Illinois’ open Senate race last year.

Tarrant has suggested that he could spend as much as $1 million to win the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), but Doran has not yet said how much of his own money he’d be willing to spend. McGavick, who is reportedly paid $7 million a year heading the insurance giant, has not publicly addressed the money issue.