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The 2010 midterm elections are shaping up to be a contentious bunch, with money as critical a factor as ever. The difference in 2010 is, there seem to be more millionaire and billionaire self-financed candidates on the scene than ever before.
Connecticut Senate candidate and former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon has spent more than $22 million of her own money to introduce herself to the voters of Connecticut. So far, the strategy worked as the previously unknown McMahon is leading the Republican primary race and has said she's willing to spend up to $50 million of her own money in her quest for the senate seat currently held by Chris Dodd (D).
Former EBay CEO Meg Whitman is running as a Republican for Governor in California and has already spent nearly $100 million of her own fortune. Whitman's aides call the money well spent as she blew out the competition for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and is currently neck and neck with perennial Golden State politician Jerry Brown. Sources inside the Whitman camp say she is willing to spend up to $150 million of her own money.
Real estate billionaire Jeff Greene made his money betting against the subprime mortgage market and has put $5 million of his own into his bid for the Florida Senate Democratic nomination and recently took a lead over his primary rival, Congressman Kendrick Meek (D-Fl).
Bill Binnie, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, is a wealthy businessman and amateur race car driver who has dumped $3.5 million of his own dollars into his campaign. That money has gone mostly to television ads to introduce Binnie to voters. That money, combined with the complacency of the establishment candidate, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, has Binnie very much alive in the race according to Granite State GOP sources.
In Michigan's gubernatorial Republican primary race, former Gateway CEO Rick Snyder has spent liberally from his own personal fortune on ads labeling himself "one tough nerd," while his opponents, Congressman Pete Hoekstra and state Attorney General Mike Cox have spent their energy attacking each other's public record.
Many of these self-funded candidates are trying to ride the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment that was dominant in the 2009 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, the special election for Edward Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts and the primary elections of 2010.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says the current environment is inviting for an outsider candidate with deep pockets.
"If you're a self funder who is anti-establishment and non-political, you want to pick a year like this to run. The public is much less likely to elect you when they're happy with the status quo."
That said, Sabato maintains the majority of them will lose. "In the right circumstances these people can win office, but most of them lose. They get nominated but rarely win." Said Sabato.
One of the many challenges these candidates face on the campaign trail is to step up to the big leagues in front of a scrutinizing media, on a never ending news cycle.
"They don't have political sense, are prone to gaffes and don't understand their own vulnerabilities. Many of them have lived a pampered lifestyle for a long time surrounded by yes men."
The increase in self-financed candidates is also a direct result of the beltway political organizations. The importance of money in politics means campaign committees have to take these rich candidates seriously. For every candidate who can finance him or herself, that's another endangered incumbent that Washington Republicans and Democrats can defend with television ads, radio ads and direct mail through their campaign committees.
This leads to a situation where Tea Party activists can portray themselves as less compromised, "The RNC thinks it's enough if the candidate is self funded. That's not enough for us, they also have to believe what we believe" Said Adam Brandon of Freedom Works, a Political Action Committee associated with some Tea Party activists and candidates.
However, spending all the money in the world doesn't necessarily mean you'll win.
Jeff Greene is coming under fire for the manner in which he made his money off the subprime mortgage meltdown. That could a tough hit to overcome in a state like Florida which was racked by foreclosures.
The Linda McMahon campaign spends much of its time and energy trying to distance the candidate from the steroids, sexual harassment and slimy storylines that populated the professional wrestling industry.
Meanwhile in California, Meg Whitman finds herself spending an average of two million dollars a week on television ads alone. Yet the polls show she's still in a statistical dead heat with Jerry Brown who has spent a paltry total of $500,000 so far. Brown aides say they have $24 million in the bank and will start spending it to go on the air soon.The National Institute on Money in State Politics recently released a study which concluded that in the past nine years only 11 percent of self-financed candidates ultimately won their races.
There have been some famous runs ending on both sides of the ledger over the past few decades:
The losers include the Illinois Democrat Blair Hull, who spent nearly $29 million in an unsuccessful 2004 senate bid; Al Checchi who spend $40 million dollars in 1998 and didn't even win the Democratic nomination in California's gubernatorial contest and Michael Huffington, also of California, who dropped more than $28 million in a losing effort to oust Senator Dianne Feinstein (D).Meanwhile there have also been some famous winners: Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald spent more than $14 million in defeating Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun; Senator Mark Dayton (D), invested nearly $12 million in his successful bid for the seat in 2000.
Former New Jersey Governor and Senator Jon Corzine has spent liberally and ended up on both sides of the equation. He dropped $60 million in his successful 2000 Senate bid. But last year the $25 million Corzine lent his flailing re-election campaign was not enough and in the end he could not defend his gubernatorial seat.
The Presidential campaign trail is also no stranger to big spenders: Ross Perot spent some $63 million dollars in his 1992 third party campaign; former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney spent more than $35 million coming up short in 2008; and Republican Steve Forbes spent more than $37 million in the 1996 GOP primary campaign and another $42 million in the 200 race. Forbes still lost both times.