How Much Did You Pay for That Primary Win?

Spending millions of your own money can get you nominated, but it won’t guarantee you a win in November.

National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman and Adam Wollner
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Karyn Bruggeman and Adam Wollner
May 27, 2014, 6:46 p.m.

Self-fund­ing can­did­ates are off to a strong start this elec­tion sea­son, but if his­tory is any guide, it won’t last.

Already, gubernat­ori­al hope­fuls, such as Re­pub­lic­an Bruce Rau­ner of Illinois and Demo­crat Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, won primar­ies after pour­ing mil­lions of their own cash in­to their cam­paigns. Dav­id Per­due waded through a crowded Geor­gia Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an field to ad­vance to a Ju­ly run­off elec­tion and polit­ic­al new­comer Curt Clawson won the GOP nom­in­a­tion for a spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida’s 19th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict the same way.

How much did it cost? Well, with $10 mil­lion spent, Wolf has taken the most out of his wal­let. Rau­ner shelled out more than $6.5 mil­lion, while Per­due per­son­ally put in nearly $3 mil­lion — with more po­ten­tially on the way. Clawson has spent more than $2.6 mil­lion.

While that might look like money well spent, self-fund­ing seems to only of­fer an ini­tial boost to help can­did­a­cies get off the ground. In­deed, his­tory shows it’s far from a sure­fire way to clinch vic­tory in Novem­ber.

Over the past three elec­tion cycles, 54 per­cent of House and Sen­ate can­did­ates who per­son­ally con­trib­uted or loaned at least $500,000 to their cam­paigns se­cured their party’s nom­in­a­tion, but just 22 per­cent of all self-fun­ders won their races, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. 

Over the past three elec­tion cycles, just 22 per­cent of all self-fun­ders won their races.

The biggest self-fund­ing flop dur­ing that peri­od came cour­tesy of Meg Whit­man, CEO of Hew­lett-Pack­ard, who spent a whop­ping $144 mil­lion of her per­son­al for­tune in a failed ef­fort to de­feat Demo­crat Jerry Brown in the 2010 Cali­for­nia gov­ernor’s race. On the Sen­ate side, former WWE CEO Linda McMa­hon pumped nearly $100 mil­lion of her own money in­to two un­suc­cess­ful bids in Con­necti­c­ut.

In 2012, Texas Lt. Gov. Dav­id Dewhurst fell short in his GOP primary run­off elec­tion against Ted Cruz even though he spent just shy of $20 mil­lion on the ef­fort. Dav­id Alameel’s fourth-place fin­ish in Texas’s 33rd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict primary per­son­ally cost him about $4.5 mil­lion — or $2,173 per vote.

This year, not all can­did­ates who at least par­tially self-fin­anced have found suc­cess. Sid Dinsdale lost in Neb­raska’s GOP Sen­ate primary des­pite loan­ing his cam­paign $1 mil­lion down the fi­nal stretch of the race, and Matt Bev­in spent $900,000 of his own money in his failed bid to un­seat Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell in Ken­tucky. Look­ing ahead to Iowa’s Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate primary on June 3, busi­ness­man Mark Jac­obs has put more than $3 mil­lion to­ward his cam­paign but still has fallen be­hind state Sen. Joni Ernst in re­cent polls.

For the lim­ited num­ber of self-fun­ders who emerge from the gen­er­al elec­tion, one ma­jor up­side is that they likely won’t be forced to de­liv­er a re­peat per­form­ance the next time around. A hand­ful of in­cum­bents who used their per­son­al re­serves to win of­fice are for­go­ing the op­tion while seek­ing reelec­tion this year. For in­stance, Flor­ida Gov. Rick Scott spent more than $70 mil­lion on his suc­cess­ful 2010 bid and Min­nesota Gov. Mark Dayton spent a com­bined $15 mil­lion on his 2010 race and pre­vi­ous Sen­ate win in 2000, but neither has in­dic­ated they’ll be open­ing up their wal­lets this year.

In ad­di­tion, Demo­crat­ic Sens. Mark Warner and Kay Hagan con­sist­ently rank among the 10 richest mem­bers of the U.S. Sen­ate in terms of net worth, but have used the perks of in­cum­bency to es­tab­lish strong enough polit­ic­al net­works to skip the self-fund­ing that fueled their earli­er runs.

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