Money Isn't Everything

Article excerpt

Byline: Arian Campo-Flores and Alan Mascarenhas

Given the personal fortune Linda McMahon has tapped to finance her Republican run for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, you'd think she'd hold a formidable edge against her Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. She's pumped $22 million of her own money into the campaign, while Blumenthal has raised only $3.5 million. She's used that cash advantage to unload a barrage of ads that paint him as a career politician, clueless about how to create jobs and untrustworthy for having embellished his Vietnam War service. By contrast, she's depicted herself as exactly the sort of business-savvy outsider these grim economic times call for. With only two weeks to go until Election Day, however, polls show her trailing Blumenthal by about 10 points.

With a few exceptions, McMahon's fellow millionaires (and a couple of billionaires) aren't faring much better. Republican Meg Whitman, for example, has poured more than $120 million into her gubernatorial campaign in California--a record-breaking sum--but trails Democrat Jerry Brown by about 5 points. None of this should come as a surprise: self-financed candidates have an abysmal record. According to a June study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, only 11 percent of self-funders won their races between 2000 and 2009. Yet that hasn't stopped a slew of wealthy aspirants from trying anyway. Perhaps smelling an opportunity given the anti-incumbent climate, more self-financers than usual are running--50 in congressional races alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. "They probably will do better this cycle," says Jennifer Steen, an Arizona State University professor and expert on the issue. "But I still think a lot of them are going to lose--Their lack of experience is usually devastating."

Many of these rich candidates work off a similar script. Since they don't have to worry about fundraising, McMahon and others argue, they can't be bought by special interests. And because their experience comes from the "real" world, they bring a more practical skill set to office. Yet these very characteristics often spell doom. "Raising money from donors is part of campaigning," says Ray La Raja, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It's "a test of whether people think you're viable." He also says that if you aren't beholden to anyone, that means no one is beholden to you. Self-funders typically lack the network of contributors, volunteers, and voters that traditional politicians build up through the years.

These candidates' lack of seasoning often shows on the campaign trail. They commit avoidable gaffes. They veer off message. They don't manage the media effectively. Carly Fiorina, who has injected $5. …