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Wealthy Candidates Reap Poor Returns in U.S. Vote

Former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman
California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Wealthy candidates spent more than $500 million of their own money running for office this year. They don’t have much to show for it.

Former Hewlett-Packard Co. chairman Carly Fiorina, former EBay Inc. chief executive Meg Whitman, and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. co-founder Linda McMahon were among the losers in U.S. elections yesterday. Whitman failed in the California governor’s race after contributing $141.6 million to her campaign, the largest personal expenditure for a race in U.S. history.

“You can have all the money in the world, but you still have to convince voters you’re the best candidate,” David Levinthal, spokesman for Washington’s nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said in a telephone interview. “If you’ve struggled to connect with them, your candidacy will struggle.”

Of the 58 self-funded candidates for federal offices this year, defined as those giving at least $500,000 to their campaigns, 30 lost in primaries or dropped out before Election Day, according to data the center compiled. Those self-funded Senate and House candidates spent at least $158.9 million combined.

Candidates in state races gave themselves at least $344.3 million this year, according to Peter Quist, lead researcher at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan research organization in Helena, Montana.

In Connecticut, McMahon gave her campaign $46.6 million in donations and loans through Oct. 13, according to federal records. Fiorina gave or loaned her campaign more than $5.5 million in the same period.

On the Street

Knocking on doors in South Trenton, New Jersey, Republican Scott Sipprelle, a former hedge-fund manager who gave $1 million to his campaign for Congress, found that some voters weren’t convinced he’d be their best advocate.

“If you work on Wall Street and come into the public sector, and then go right back to Wall Street, who were you really working for?” Gabino Gonzalez, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, asked a few minutes after Sipprelle came to his door. Sipprelle lost to six-term Democrat Rush Holt.

Bipartisan Futility

Wealthy Democrats had as much trouble as Republicans. Billionaire real-estate investor Jeff Greene lost the primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida to Congressman Kendrick Meek in August after spending $23.7 million of his own, according to Center for Responsive Politics’ data. Suzan DelBene, a former Microsoft Corp. executive, lost her bid for a congressional seat in Washington State after giving herself $2.28 million.

This year’s losers join Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, and William Randolph Hearst in the ranks of the rich who fumbled bids for president, governor or Congress. Only five of the 20 largest self-funded candidates in federal races over the past two decades won, according to research from the Center for Responsive Politics.

“If you raise $100,000 in $100 increments, you have 1,000 votes,” said Jennifer Steen, an Arizona State University political scientist and the author of a book on self-financed candidates. “If you write yourself a $100,000 check, you only have one vote.”

An exception to the business-to-politics curse is Michael Bloomberg, who won three campaigns for mayor of New York spending a total of more than $265 million, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg news.

Winners’ Circle

There were self-funded winners this year, too. In Florida, former hospital industry executive Rick Scott, Scott who contributed $73.2 million to his campaign, defeated the state’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, by less than 2 percentage points to become the next governor.

Rick Snyder, a Republican former executive at Gateway Computer Inc., became Michigan’s governor on a platform that called for eliminating the state’s business tax in favor of a flat 6 percent levy on corporate income.

In some cases, a candidate’s business experience became an adversary’s weapon. Barbara Boxer, a Democratic senator from California, ran an ad featuring former Hewlett-Packard employees who lost their jobs during Fiorina’s tenure.

McMahon, a Republican, tried to become a U.S. senator for Connecticut in her first political campaign.

Starting at the Top

“The overwhelming majority of self-financed candidates seek high office as their first foray,” said Steen. “They don’t have a record, and they haven’t developed the political skills, the network or the base of supporters other candidates have.”

Had Whitman more experience, she might have been able to sidestep a critical hurdle, said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York.

Whitman was even with Brown until her former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, said in a Sept. 29 press conference that the candidate knew she was in the country illegally and fired her after deciding to run. Whitman denied the allegation to little effect: Her support among Latinos, women and independent voters fell, according to a Field Poll released Oct. 28.

“She fired her summarily,” Gitlin said in a telephone interview. “That doesn’t play well with people hanging on to jobs by their fingernails.”

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