GOP turns to self-funding candidates

House Republicans are increasingly turning to wealthy candidates able to finance their own campaigns — a plan that has both risks and rewards.

It could pay dividends: The less time a candidate has to spend on the phone asking for money, the more time he or she can spend asking for votes, attending events and bolstering visibility.

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“Our goal is to go out and listen to the district and find out who represents the district. And more so this year, it’s about fresh faces,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is spearheading GOP recruitment efforts. “In this climate, we’re going out and finding people who created jobs and are successful in business, and lo and behold, they have some money.”

But according to strategists who have worked for self-funders on both sides of the aisle, relying on wealthy candidates can be a risk as well.

Those candidates have lost races, political watchers say, because the process of raising money teaches candidates important lessons they use during the campaign.

“Call time teaches you discipline. Call time teaches you efficiency. Call time teaches you the right way to approach projects,” said one Democratic operative who has worked with self-funding candidates.

Frequently, the operative said, wealthy candidates come from a career in which they have been a success, and they believe they can manage their own race in the same new, original way that made them rich in the first place. “Out-of-the-box does not win campaigns. Out-of-the-box is dangerous,” he said.

Michael Malbin, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and a political scientist at SUNY-Albany, agreed.

“Self-funded candidates are basically driven by their own opinions about their chances,” Malbin said. “They are people who are financing themselves because they think they’d make good members of Congress, or they think they have a good chance to win. Obviously, they have inflated expectations.”

The best mix is for a candidate to use his money sparingly, and only if the situation warrants, strategists in both parties said. Early seed money is good, and if polls show a candidate slipping, personal wealth can make up for the attendant slowdown in fundraising. But the ability to write a check should not end the responsibility to spend hours on the phone seeking donations.

“You’re looking for people who are getting support,” McCarthy added, detailing what makes a good candidate in his mind. “Not only do you get financial support to get your message out [when dialing for dollars], you’re getting support in the district. It’s more than just putting your name out there.”

That’s why Republicans also are touting the prospects of businessman Randy Altschuler (R), a candidate against Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) who has put $450,000 into his own race. Altschuler had a strong quarter, pulling in just over $200,000 from individual donors.

But, so far, at least 16 Republicans running against vulnerable Democratic incumbents have put more than $100,000 into their own races, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. And at least another five are prepared to dip into their personal bank accounts to kick off their public careers.

According to Malbin, about one-quarter of the money raised by Republican challengers this year has been self-financing.

Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.) could face either engineer Ben Loyola (R), who has given himself $500,000, or auto     dealer Scott Rigell (R), who has written checks totaling $226,000.

Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) could face the winner of a primary between businessmen Eric Wnuck (R) and Jim Ward (R) and former Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert (R). Wnuck has given himself $150,000 in seed money. Ward has donated $96,000 to his own cause and Schweikert has put $250,000 into his own race.

Jim Renacci (R), who owns an Arena League football team, is the favorite in the primary to face Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio) next year.

Physician Nan Hayworth (R), who has given herself a $150,000 head start, faces a primary against Assemblyman Greg Ball (R) before she can challenge Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) in a general election.

In Pennsylvania, where Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) is running for governor, Republicans are privately touting the prospects of venture capitalist Steven Welch (R) as the candidate best able to raise the resources necessary — his own included — to defend the seat, even though state Rep. Curt Schroder (R), backed by an electoral base, is running too.

Democrats are touting several of their own self-funding candidates, though not nearly to the extent Republicans are.

Former Microsoft Vice President Suzan DelBene (D) has put nearly $500,000 into her race against Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).

Former newspaper executive Doug Pike (D) has given himself $620,000 in the race to replace Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.).

And Sacramento utility director Bill Slaton (D) has put $290,000 into a race against Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), though he will face a competitive primary.

A similar strategy has paid off for Democrats. Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) contributed heavily to his own campaign during a special election earlier this year, while attorney Bill Owens (D) is expected to have given himself significant resources when his reports are filed late Thursday. Owens has led recent polls in the race to fill Army Secretary John McHugh’s seat in New York.

But for every Murphy and Owens — not to mention Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) — there are those who spend out of their own pocket for naught.

John Raese (R) spent $2.3 million of his own money to win just 34 percent of the vote against Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in 2006.

Mike McGavick (R) spent $2.5 million and won just 40 percent against Cantwell the same year — a year Cantwell did not self-fund significantly.

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And Pete Ricketts (R), now chairman of the Nebraska state GOP, poured $12 million into his own race in 2006, only to win just 36 percent against Sen. Ben Nelson (D).

Meanwhile, Republicans said their reliance on self-funding candidates is not an indication that the party will not have the money to compete for every district it eventually decides to target.

“We’re very pleased with the steady improvement of our fundraising, month-to-month, and are encouraged that that will continue in the coming year,” said Paul Lindsay, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.