Self-funders carry party hopes

The year 2000 was a banner year for self-funding candidates, with three spending more than $10 million each to win election to the Senate.

The year 2000 was a banner year for self-funding candidates, with three spending more than $10 million each to win election to the Senate.

Six years later, deep-pocketed self-funding Jon Corzine of New Jersey has left the Senate and Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) is on his way out, both disillusioned. Voters could send Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) packing as well, thanks to a self-funding challenger.

The intervening years haven’t been kind to a new crop of self-funding candidates. Since the 2000 election, just three out of 48 $1 million-plus self-funders have seen their investments pay off. Those who were successful include Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a well-known former senator who was filling a late ballot hole, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a well-known former governor and presidential candidate.

But despite the rough go of things for recent self-funding candidates, this year several self-funders are waging competitive bids around the country, and the balance of the Senate could pivot on their performances. Overall, with about six weeks to go, the number of $5 million and $1 million self-funders already rivals each of the last two cycles.

Six Senate candidates have already joined the exclusive $5 million club, and several others could approach joining the club as November nears. Self-funders who spend the highest amounts tend to flood their campaigns in the final weeks, said self-funding expert Jennifer Steen of Boston College, who published a book on the topic this year.

“They get down to the wire, and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, just another million dollars will do it,’ ” Steen said. “And they just can’t resist spending the money.”

In 2000, Dayton and Cantwell, both in tight races, contributed $5.1 million and $3.8 million of their own money after Oct. 1, bringing their totals to $11.8 million and $10.3 million, respectively.

Notable self-funders this year include Senate candidates Jim Pederson (D) in Arizona, Ned Lamont (D) in Connecticut, Bob Corker (R) in Tennessee and Mike McGavick (R), who is challenging Cantwell. Pederson already ranks 11th all-time among self-funders at $8.3 million, and Lamont ranks in the top 20 with $6.5 million. Corker and McGavick have both spent about $2 million of their own money and are engaged in two of the closest contests in the country.

Recent polls have shown Pederson as close as five points from Sen. Jon Kyl (R), and Pederson said his fundraising has picked up as a result. He is open to making more personal contributions if necessary, but said he’d like to rely on fundraising and avoid triggering the Millionaire’s Amendment, which raises the limit on individual contributions opponents can accept from donors if a candidate reaches certain thresholds, which vary by race, with contributions from their own pocket.

Like many self-funders, Pederson contributed all of his current total during the primary in order to avoid triggering the rule for the general election. The rule didn’t exist in 2000 and could conceivably lead to decreased late self-funding.

“We have to wait and see; that’s unknown,” Pederson said. “But we’re going to have sufficient resources to go head-to-head with Jon Kyl.”

Lamont spokeswoman Liz Dupont-Diehl said the Democratic nominee does “anticipate the necessity for more self-funding” in his rematch with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), whom he beat 52-48 in the primary but is still facing becaues Lieberman is running as an independent. Dupont-Diehl wouldn’t specify how much Lamont is willing to give, though.

McGavick, who received $28 million after leaving as CEO of Safeco Corp. last year, plugged $2 million into his noncompetitive primary in August and declared that he didn’t plan on contributing any more. He told The Hill on Wednesday that he is sticking with that plan for the time being and that he doesn’t anticipate he’ll need to supplement his fundraising.

Corker’s campaign did not return calls seeking comment.

There are also several self-funders in less-competitive Senate races, including Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts, Vermont Republican Richard Tarrant, Florida GOP Rep. Katherine Harris, West Virginia Republican John Raese and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who doesn’t face a major challenge and traditionally self-funds to the tune of several million dollars.

Ricketts, who trails Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) by more than 20 points in most polls, is the largest self-funder at $9.6 million. He said he would inject “what it takes to be competitive and no more.”

Tarrant, Harris and Raese are also long shots at this point.

Self-funding House candidates in major races include Republican David McSweeney, who is challenging Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.); Republican Vern Buchanan in Florida’s 13th District, Democrat Steve Kagen in Wisconsin’s 8th District, and Democrat Jack Davis, who is challenging National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

McSweeney is quick to point out that, after plugging $1.9 million into his campaign before the March primary, he also has been one of the top fundraisers among House challengers. He said he will “very likely” add funds for the general election and that the amount depends on how much is raised during upcoming visits from President Bush and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R).

Davis, who has filed a lawsuit challenging the Millionaire’s Amendment (the court date is set for late October), said he plans to spend $2 million on his campaign.

Like several candidates around the country, Davis is actually touting his ability to self-fund on the campaign trail, saying it exempts him from being beholden to special interests at a time when corruption is an issue on many voters’ minds.

Similarly, Pederson is running on the motto of “Nobody’s Senator But Ours,” a slogan borrowing from a former Kohl catchphrase, and saying, as Davis does, that self-funding eliminates any potentially corrupting forces.

“If you send a millionaire to Congress who hasn’t accepted any money from any special interests, nothing could corrupt me,” said Davis, 73. “I’m old enough that women won’t corrupt me; I have enough money that I don’t need anymore. Think of something that would corrupt me. There’s nothing there.”

But Steen said the issue of whether candidates self-fund generally doesn’t resonate with voters for better or for worse, and that there’s no reason to believe this year will be different.

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