As Hillary Clinton learned the hard way, politics and money aren’t always a good mix.
In Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is attacking her Republican opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as being someone who “quadrupled his net worth on the backs of hardworking Kentuckians that can’t afford it.”
Former Dollar General Corp. chief executive officer David Perdue, who is funding much of his own U.S. Senate campaign in Georgia, was accused in the Republican primary of failing to understand “this is an election, not an auction.”
Republicans McConnell and Perdue are among the wealthiest U.S. Senate candidates in this year’s 12 most competitive contests, data compiled by Bloomberg shows, and the issue could help sway which party gains control of the chamber in November.
“It’s always challenging for politicians to talk about their wealth,” said Nick Carnes, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who studies the occupations and wealth of elected officials. “The vast majority of politicians are significantly better off than the people they’re trying to represent.”
Republican Mitt Romney, a former private equity executive, spent the 2012 presidential campaign fending off charges he was too rich to relate to most voters. Clinton is now facing Republican charges that she’s out of touch after she told ABC News that she and former President Bill Clinton were “dead broke” upon leaving the White House. The former first couple are, in fact, now multimillionaires.
What’s striking about the charges against McConnell and Perdue is that they’re coming up not on the national stage, but in several of the most critical statewide races for Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to wrest control of the chamber from the Democrats.
It’s an issue that could help turn the election into a fight between the haves and have-nots, a conversation most Democratic candidates would welcome. President Barack Obama and other party leaders have tried to focus their 2014 election message on economic inequalities and boosting the minimum wage.
What’s less clear is whether it will stick. Americans have elected such wealthy individuals as Democrat John F. Kennedy and both George Bushes, the Republican father and son, to the White House. Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV’s family wealth didn’t stop him from being elected to the U.S. Senate from West Virginia for five terms.
In addition, economic inequality issues have greater significance in presidential election years because a broader swath of voters participates.
In the 2010 midterms, 64 percent of voters nationally had incomes of $50,000 or more, compared with 59 percent in the 2012 presidential election, exit polls show.
Attacking a candidate’s wealth doesn’t work everywhere because many incumbents seeking re-election also are affluent. In an analysis released this year, the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics found for the first time in history that most House and Senate members are millionaires, with more than half having a net worth exceeding $1 million.
To identify the wealthiest Senate candidates, Bloomberg reviewed the annual disclosures of assets, liabilities and memberships on boards filed by federal candidates to comply with rules created by a 1978 ethics law.
The law requires only broad ranges for valuation, making it impossible to determine exact figures. To rank Senate candidates, Bloomberg used the same methodology employed by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, for members of Congress.
That method uses the midpoint of the range of net worth reported. Under that measure, Perdue and McConnell each has more than $30 million in wealth, tens of millions more than their opponents in Georgia and Kentucky. No. 1 on the Bloomberg list is Republican Terri Lynn Land of Michigan.
When ranked by their net-worth midpoint, Land comes out at $32.8 million. Perdue follows at $31.7 million, and McConnell is third at $30.4 million.
In McConnell’s case, much of his treasure came from an inheritance after his mother-in-law’s 2007 death. The five-term incumbent is married to former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and the couple started in 2008 listing a tax-exempt fund valued between $5 million and $25 million.
McConnell also had received smaller inheritances in the 1990s from his mother and an uncle.
Chao is the eldest of a Chinese shipping magnate’s six daughters. Her father built a fortune as founder of the Foremost Group, a closely held company based in New York.
McConnell, through spokeswoman Allison Moore, declined to comment for this story.
In the past, the senator has responded to attacks from Grimes about his wealth by saying that he supports federal polices to improve the economy for all. When his wife has come under attack, he has highlighted her story as a successful and inspiring immigrant.
Grimes, 35, and McConnell, 72, are locked in one of this year’s highest-stakes U.S. Senate races. If Grimes can persuade voters the incumbent is out of touch because of his wealth and decades in Washington -- as she’s tried to do when speaking about McConnell’s opposition to raising the minimum wage -- it could give her an edge in what’s expected to be a close contest.
Grimes, with a midpoint net worth of $456,000, is in the bottom quartile of candidates in the 12 most competitive U.S. Senate races. Besides Kentucky, Michigan, Georgia and Arkansas, those states with closely watched races include Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and West Virginia.
Land, a former Michigan secretary of state and past member of the Republican National Committee, reported that she and her husband had stocks, retirement accounts, a multistate real estate portfolio and other assets valued at between $31.6 million and $37.3 million. She listed $1 million to $2.4 million in debts for a line of credit and mortgages.
Her opponent, U.S. Representative Gary Peters, listed assets ranging from $1.3 million to $5.3 million and liabilities between $110,000 and $265,000.
“Terri Lynn Land grew up in the mobile home park owned by her grandparents and worked her way up, helping out the family business and now, she and her son own a small business together,” Heather Swift, a Land campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, Congressman Gary Peters made millions working for Wall Street banks and profiting off the trading of highly speculative derivatives.”
Before entering Congress, Peters was a vice president for UBS/Paine Webber from 1989 to 2003. Prior to that, he was a Merrill Lynch executive.
In Georgia, Perdue’s opponents ahead of the May 20 Republican primary sought to make an issue of his wealth. His next election challenge is the July 22 runoff with fellow Republican U.S. Representative Jack Kingston, who has a net worth ranging from $1.4 million to $4 million.
Both men are wealthier than the Democratic nominee, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn of the Georgia.
Perdue’s spokesman, Derrick Dickey, declined to comment for this article.
At the bottom of the personal wealth list is Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, who winds up in the red when his $4,000 to $60,000 in assets are factored against his $100,000 to $250,000 in debts. Pryor’s personal finances were hurt by his 2012 divorce.
U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, Pryor’s Republican opponent, has a net worth between $115,000 and $300,000, making him also among the least prosperous top Senate race candidates.
Carnes, the professor who studies candidate wealth, said wealthy candidates often will talk about the hardscrabble lives that parents or other family members may have had.
“It seems to be a strategy that works,” he said. “Americans as a rule don’t seem to actively dislike rich politicians. A candidate’s biography is only a small part of how voters decide. There are lots of other things a wealthy candidate can do to change the conversation.”