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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