Self-funding candidates pick up traction in Republican Senate primaries

A number of Republican candidates are gaining traction in upcoming Senate primaries due to their ability to self-fund.

Four GOP candidates have been able to propel their campaigns with their personal wealth: Wil Cardon in Arizona, Eric Hovde in Wisconsin, John Brunner in Missouri and Linda McMahon in Connecticut. Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s (R) personal fortune is a big reason he’s still competitive against former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz (R).

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In some cases, these candidates could help their party win seats that could otherwise be out of reach. In others, the self-funders are giving the establishment choices headaches — and potentially hurting the GOP’s chances of winning those seats and control of the Senate.

 “What works to your advantage in some places cuts against you elsewhere,” said one Republican strategist watching the Senate races, touting Brunner and Hovde but admitting McMahon and Cardon’s big spending were hurting their party’s chances at those seats. 

Self-funding candidates’ business backgrounds are often an asset,  but because the candidates are often untested campaigners, they sometimes make mistakes more seasoned politicians would avoid, another national GOP strategist said.

 “You don’t have a legislative record for people to attack, you have a business background — at a time when the economy’s front and center and you’ve shown you can create jobs,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “On the downside, they’re generally people who haven’t run before [and] so haven’t been vetted. There are trade-offs.” 

Cardon is Republicans’ biggest headache. He’s spent $4.2 million of his own money on ads attacking Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for his immigration views as well as his breaking of a campaign pledge to retire after three terms in the House — and observers say the race has tightened in recent weeks.

The two men are competing for retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) seat. The primary is Aug. 28.

 While Flake remains the favorite for the GOP nomination, he’s had to invest $1.4 million in primary ads — money he would rather have used in the general election against former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a top Democratic recruit in the Republican-leaning state. 

Kyl and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) endorsed Flake on Friday, and they warned that Cardon’s attacks could hurt Flake in the general election.

 “Frankly, I also worry that these attacks might make it harder in the general election for us to elect Mr. Jeff Flake to the United States Senate,” McCain said.

 The hard-fought and fiercely negative campaign has forced Flake to be out on the stump and might have cut into his fundraising efforts. Carmona outraised Flake by $1.1 million to $900,000 in the last three months. That and Flake’s money spent on the primary have shrunk his once-substantial cash advantage.

While Cardon is hurting GOP efforts to win that seat, Brunner’s and Hovde’s campaigns have picked up momentum in recent weeks.

Brunner, who has invested nearly $5 million in his campaign, has emerged as the front-runner in Missouri in his three-way primary against former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Rep. Todd Akin. The three are fighting for the right to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), a top GOP target. The primary is Aug. 7.

Democrats argue there is plenty to attack in Brunner’s business background, but some privately say they have more ammunition against Akin from his years in Washington, D.C., and against Steelman from her time in the statehouse — and that their campaigns have not been as well-run as Brunner’s.

Brunner also has the ability to continue to self-fund even after an expensive primary, while if Akin or Steelman wins the nomination, the national party and outside Republican groups will have to step in and spend heavily on the race.

Hovde’s late entrance into the Wisconsin Senate race and recent surge in polls might have helped his party’s chances there — whether he wins the primary or not.

Before Hovde jumped in, the Aug. 14 GOP primary was shaping up to be a battle between former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Rep. Mark Neumann, a hard-line conservative who has the support of a number of national conservative groups. 

Thompson remains popular with independents and would give his party a strong chance in the general election in a seat Republicans would like to pick up, but he has taken a number of policy stances that hurt him in a primary, including support of a national individual mandate for healthcare.

Hovde’s heavy spending — he’s dropped more than $3 million of his own money on the race — has given him a big boost, splitting the anti-Thompson vote and pushing Neumann into third place in the race, according to two recent polls. 

The eventual nominee will face a strong Democratic candidate in Rep. Tammy Baldwin for retiring Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D) seat.

McMahon, a former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment who also ran in 2010, has hurt her party’s chances in Connecticut, observers say.

She’s expected to easily win her Aug. 14 primary over former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a well-known centrist whom most say would have given the party its best chance in the state. 

While she is a much-improved candidate from two years ago, McMahon faces a steep uphill race against Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in this Dem-leaning state. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) is retiring.

Texas’s open Senate seat will remain in Republican hands whether Dewhurst or Cruz wins their late July primary runoff. 

A number of conservative groups have invested heavily in Cruz, giving him a major boost in the race, but Dewhurst’s personal wealth (as well as his high name identification statewide) has helped keep him in the race. Both candidates are spending heavily and have released polls in recent days showing them with the lead. Although Cruz might have the momentum, if Dewhurst pulls out a win it will be largely because of his ability to self-fund.