Mother’s Milk All Dried Up

Money Woes Could Limit Self-Funders

Posted April 10, 2009 at 5:37pm

Since the enactment of a new campaign finance reform law that banned so-called soft money in 2002, both parties have come to covet the largess of self-funding candidates in recent election cycles.

But with the current economic hard times hitting just about everyone and forcing across-the-board belt-tightening, the prospect of seeing fewer millionaires who can help support their campaigns in 2010 suddenly seems very real.

Take South Carolina Democrat Linda Ketner for example.

The Charleston businesswoman and daughter of the Food Lion grocery store chain founder held Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) to his lowest winning percentage of his Congressional career last cycle. She loaned herself half of the $2.2 million she spent on that race, but if she challenges Brown again in 2010 she said she likely wouldn’t be able to self-fund to the same extent.

“I, like a lot of other people, have a lot of my investment in real estate that is not selling, and stocks that you don’t want to sell because they are so hurt at this point,— Ketner said last week.

One might assume that Ketner could simply make up any self-funding gap by raising more money from supporters around the state. But Ketner said she “fundraised my brains out— last cycle to bring in $1.1 million in donations. And trying to match that total again in a state that currently has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation seems unlikely.

“The whole nation and the whole world is suffering right now and I just don’t think it’s going to turn around fast enough for the 2010 races,— Ketner said.

And as the rich get poorer and the poor get desperate “that doesn’t leave a lot of money for people to invest in politics,— she said.

Republican Jim Ward, who is considering a challenge to Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), also said financial considerations would be taken into account as he weighs the race and whether he would be able to put a significant amount of personal resources into it.

“I’m just going to have to make that decision down the line,— he said. “The economy has put a crimp in a lot of folks’ portfolios and I’m not excluded from that, so I want to be cautious and prudent.—

Ward’s business credentials have intrigued GOP officials as he has made the rounds on Capitol Hill and in Arizona. The former president of LucasArts — a leading video game publisher and developer — left the San Francisco-based company last year to join a venture capital firm in Arizona.

Ward added that if he runs, he intends to “raise a lot of money because I believe that’s the best way to meet the most people and garner the most support.—

Officially, the House and Senate campaign committees are hesitant to say that they target potential self-funders when it comes to candidate recruitment. They also contend it’s way too early in the cycle to tell whether the sour economy could curtail some candidacies in 2010.

“In this day and age, when races are increasingly expensive, if you have a candidate with the ability to write a check, that’s obviously an advantage,— National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said. “That being said, there are many other factors that are taken into consideration when looking at candidates.—

But strategists on both sides of the aisle are keenly aware that candidates who have the ability to put large amounts of personal wealth into a 2010 campaign are likely to be even more attractive from a candidate recruiting standpoint.

“With the economy, with the committees in debt, absolutely self-funders will be even a bigger commodity this cycle,— said Democratic strategist Jennifer Burton, who worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1990s.

GOP strategist Chris LaCivita, a former political director for the NRSC, was willing to be even more blunt.

“If the committees say they aren’t interested in self-funders, they are very poor liars. They always have been and they always will be interested in self-funders,— he said.

The reason, LaCivita said, is purely budget driven. With a finite amount of money available per cycle, any time a candidate can come in and take a race off the table with an ability to self-fund, that’s more money the committee can spend in other places. A self-funder ensures that the committee won’t have to carry a candidate across the finish line financially in the crucial final weeks of the campaign.

Given the track record of some self-funding candidates in recent years — like Republican Sandy Treadwell, who got clobbered in New York’s 20th district last year despite pouring millions of his own money into the race — it’s important to remember that fundraising from sources beyond just the candidate’s own checkbook is also key.

“Every dollar that’s raised represents an investment in the campaign,— LaCivita said. “Your ideal self-funding candidate is someone who doesn’t rely on it exclusively but can fall back on it to meet the budget.—

But even if the economic downturn is more often drying up the liquidity that would-be self-funders could use to finance their dreams of coming to Washington, D.C., just last week there was evidence that 2010 will still feature some free-spending candidates.

Former editorial writer Doug Pike (D) announced that he will run for Rep. Jim Gerlach’s (R) suburban Philadelphia seat. Pike is the son of former New York Rep. Otis Pike (D) and, according to Democratic sources, plans to put $1 million of his own funds into the race.

For one potential candidate, Alabama state Rep. Jay Love (R), the economic recession has actually boosted his financial position.

Love narrowly lost to now-Rep. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) by less than 2,000 votes in 2008, when he spent $250,000 of his own money on the race.

But when he’s not talking politics, Love serves as a partner in a franchise consulting business that works with 276 Subway stores in Florida and Georgia. Subway’s “$5 Footlong— sandwich deal has helped the fast-food chain defy the economic downturn as consumers are passing up more expensive dining options and trading down to cheaper alternatives.

As Love contemplates a rematch in 2010, Subway’s success in the past 18 months may give him the ability to spend even more of his personal resources on a Congressional bid.

“I’ve been blessed financially and am in a business where we’ve actually benefited in the recession,— Love said recently. “It’s really been incredible how well Subway has done in this down economy. … I expect, if I were to run again, to run a very well-funded campaign.—