By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:18 AM
Wealthy future candidates, take note: It turns out that most of the time, money really can’t buy you political happiness.
Tuesday’s midterms featured an unusually large crop of moguls who sought to ease their way into power by pouring millions of their own dollars into their campaigns. In most cases, they failed spectacularly.
The most obvious – and jaw-dropping – example came in the California gubernatorial race, where Republican Meg Whitman spent $175 million of her eBay fortune to lose badly to former Democratic governor Jerry Brown. That works out to about $57 for each of the roughly 3 million votes she won.
As GOP consultant Alex Castellanos quipped on CNN: “I could have lost that race for only $80 million.”
Although Whitman shattered all previous records, she was hardly alone. Other rich losers this year included former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who gave or loaned her Connecticut Senate campaign $47 million; former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who tapped into personal accounts for $5.5 million; and GOP businessman John Raese, who used $4.7 million of his own money in losing the Senate race in West Virginia.
These are not isolated cases. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that out of 58 candidates who used $500,000 or more of their money on federal races in 2010, fewer than one in five won. Eight of the top 10 self-funders this cycle lost, with only GOP Senate challenger Ron Johnson of Wisconsin ($8.2 million) and House candidate Scott Rigell of Virginia ($2.4 million) emerging victorious.
The results continue a long tradition of ambitious but failed bids for political office by self-financing tycoons from Ross Perot to Steve Forbes, who frequently have difficulty translating their financial advantages into votes. Since 1990, only five of the top 20 self-financed candidates have won, according to the center’s data.
“Self-financing candidates generally do poorly, and Election 2010 is certainly no exception,” center spokesman David Levinthal said.
Certainly there have been exceptions over the years. Successful politicians who tapped their personal fortunes to win office include California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). The biggest example in 2010 is former hospitals executive Rick Scott, who spent or borrowed nearly $75 million of his own money to beat Democrat Alex Sink in the Florida governor’s race. Even then, Scott finished only about a point ahead of Sink.
Arizona State University professor Jennifer A. Steen, who authored a book on self-financing candidates, said wealthy politicos who win can thank luck as much as money. Scott, for example, clearly benefited from this year’s broad GOP wave and a poorly run campaign by Sink.
“He should have beaten her by a much larger margin, considering the environment,” Steen said. “It’s not very good bang for the buck.”
On the federal level, the record-holder remains Perot, who spent $63.5 million on his independent bid for the presidency in 1992, according to Federal Election Commission data. The money earned him about 20 percent of the popular vote, no electoral votes and a distant third-place finish behind Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Democrat Jon S. Corzine spent $60 million to win a Senate seat in 2000, but pouring cash into his campaign failed to win him reelection as New Jersey’s governor last year.
In Illinois in 2004, securities trader Blair Hull spent $24 million of his fortune on a bid for the Senate, only to be beaten in the Democratic primary by a relative unknown named Barack Obama.
In general, Steen said, self-financed candidates tend to lose simply because they don’t have experience in the brass-knuckle world of politics, which includes knowing how to connect with voters and maintain such relationships.
“You can call it arrogance or naivete, to be more charitable,” Steen said. “They don’t tend to learn the lessons of past self-financers, and they don’t tend to recognize their own deficiencies. The track record is typically bad.”
- Money was no guarantee of victory
- Some defeated House Democrats outspent GOP
- Campaign 2010: Money match up
The Fix is still sifting through raw results and exit polls of the 2010 midterm election, but it wouldn’t be the day after a big vote without a takeout on who won and who lost in last night’s festivities.
As always, we aim to go beyond the obvious winners and losers to provide Fixistas with the story behind the story.
Our picks are below. We reserve the right to revise and extend them when we have slept for more than four hours and eaten something other than cookies for our last three meals.
Whom did we miss? (And, yes, we know we missed lots of people.) Let’s hear it in the comments section.
Pete Sessions: The National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman is consistently underestimated. But, unlike many politicians, he knew what he was good at — raising money and member relations — and what he wasn’t (press). Sessions’s decision to frontload much of the NRCC’s committee buys into September proved to be a masterstroke — drastically stretching the playing field and setting the stage for the 60-seat gain.
Harry Reid: The Senate majority leader proved to be more resilient than his critics, winning a race that almost everyone (including the Fix, at times) thought he simply couldn’t win. Much credit — maybe most of the credit — goes to Reid’s campaign staff and consultants who executed their strategy nearly flawlessly to put him over the top. A truly remarkable race that political historians — and nerds — will study for years to come.
GOP diversity: The new House Republican class includes two African Americans — Tim Scott (S.C.) and Allen West (Fla.). An Indian American woman — Nikki Haley — won the South Carolina governorship, and six Hispanics (Florida’s Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov.-elect Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, and Reps.-elect Quico Canseco (Texas), Bill Flores (Texas) and Raul Labrador (Idaho) were elected, as well. For a party that has long struggled under the “old white guy” stereotype, last night’s election was a welcome change.
Independents: Unaffiliated voters, yet again, made the difference in a national election. After siding with Democrats by 18 points in 2006 and with President Obama by eight points in 2008, independents helped Republicans by 16 points last night. That stunning 34-point swing in the space of four years suggests that independents are only loosely aligned — at best — with either party and makes courting them all the more important heading into 2012.
Political Handicappers: Those who predict the outcomes of elections tend to get considerable grief, but they had a very good night on Tuesday. Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, had been predicting a Republican wave in the House since last summer, and Stu Rothenberg’s final House prediction was a GOP pickup of between 55 and 65 seats, which is right around where it will end up. Give these guys credit — predicting elections is a nerve-wracking and difficult business.
Former Congressmen: Former GOP Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio), Steve Pearce (N.M.) Tim Walberg (Mich.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Charlie Bass (N.H.) all completed political comebacks, reclaiming their old House seats two or four years after they initially lost them. Could a slew of ousted Democratic House incumbents mount comeback bids in 2012?
1954: Just days after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the first time since 1954, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) appears to be on the verge of being the first Senator to win a write-in candidacy since Strom Thurmond in, you guessed it, 1954.
Former professional athletes: Ex-NFL offensive lineman Jon Runyan (R) won a House race in New Jersey, and former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) won reelection in a tough district. Another man with a brief NFL career, Republican Keith Fimian, had a chance to beat Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) in a still-uncalled race. Former NBA-er Shawn Bradley — yes, that Shawn Bradley — lost his Utah statehouse campaign, but a man he battled in the paint, fellow center Chris Dudley, was leading the Oregon governor’s race early Wednesday afternoon.
* McCain Democrats: Heading into Tuesday, there were 48 districts where both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a Democratic congressman won in 2008. Republicans won three-quarters of those seats — an absolute political killing field. NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison said that many of those new Republican congressmen will escape serious opposition in elections to come, given the underlying demographics of the districts, and he might well be right.
* Charlie Crist: Um, what was that exactly? Crist started this cycle as an uber-popular governor of one of the country’s biggest — and most politically consequential — states. He ended it by taking less than 30 percent in his Florida Senate bid and as a man without a party or any foreseeable political future. W-O-W.
* House committee chairmen: Usually the men and women who rise to the coveted position of committee chair in the House have nothing to worry about electorally. Their longevity, which puts them in position to be chair, speaks to the safety of their home districts. Or not. On Tuesday, Reps. Ike Skelton (Mo.), John Spratt (S.C.) and Jim Oberstar (Minn.), who chair the Armed Services, Budget and Transportation committees, respectively, all lost.
* Tea party: Yes, there is a new tea party senator in Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and senators with tea party affiliations in Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rubio. But, the overriding story last night was that while the tea party might be able to deliver a primary win to its preferred candidates, it can’t do the same in a general election. Tea party-supported candidates in Senate races in Delaware and Nevada and, likely, in Alaska and Colorado, all fell. Meanwhile, more “establishment” GOP picks claimed Senate victories in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and other states.
* Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.): With Reid’s stunning win, the almost-out-in-the-open leadership fight is shelved.
* “All politics is local”: The old Tip O’Neill adage took a beating for the third straight House election cycle, as a national wave swept out good campaigners and swept in unheralded and underfunded candidates. Losses by Reps. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.), Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) and Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) prove that even a good campaigner can’t always overcome the national momentum in House races. Senate and gubernatorial results suggest, however, that candidate and campaign quality matter more in higher-profile, statewide races.
* Gerrymandering: Ballot measures passed to establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions in both California and Florida. Those two states account for more than one out of every six seats in Congress, and both would otherwise feature one-party control over the whole redistricting process. That’s a big victory for those concerned about the political process intruding in the decennial line-drawing process — not to mention Florida Democrats and California Republicans.
* The Fix: Election night is bittersweet for us. It’s the best day of the year but is followed by a long dark teatime of the soul between elections. Lucky for us, there’s always 2011 — Kentucky governor’s race! — and the soon-to-start 2012 presidential contest. Don’t cry for us, Fix Nation.
With Aaron Blake
By Chris Cillizza | November 3, 2010; 3:02 PM ET
Categories: Winners and Losers