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February 26, 2014 11:23 AM Playing the Green Tambourine

By Ed Kilgore

It’s no secret that the kind of people who are called “party strategists” love to recruit candidates for office who are insanely rich from private business careers or inheritance (or more often, both), and who can be marketed as “citizen-activists” or “outsiders.” They’re favored candidates most importantly because they come with their own campaign treasuries (from which ticket-mates may benefit even if the candidate supplying the money loses), and also because they have no voting record or public-sector management vulnerabilities to defend.

Recruiting this kind of candidate has been a thoroughly bipartisan enterprise, but this year it’s the GOP that is heavily relying on self-funders in its drive to retake the U.S. Senate, as The Hill’s Cameron Joseph reports:

Six Republican candidates with serious Senate aspirations are wealthy businessmen. Some are political newcomers, like Iowa Senate candidate Mark Jacobs (R), Georgia’s David Perdue (R) and Minnesota’s Mike McFadden (R).
Others are current office-holders, like Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and North Carolina Speaker Thom Tillis (R), but they’re emphasizing their business backgrounds instead of their electoral experience.
Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) and her husband are also wealthy from their real estate investments and property management business, though she’s emphasized her time in office more than her private-sector experience.

Interestingly, of the above list only Daines and Land look like a lead-pipe cinch for a GOP Senate nomination. And as primary fights grow more intense, the odds also grow that wealthy self-funders will draw heat from intraparty opponents that set up later Democratic attacks (viz. Newt Gingrich’s retailing of anti-Bain Capital thematics later used to greater effect by the Obama campaign).

Indeed, the Romney precedent does seem to cast a pall on what would otherwise be great GOP excitement over the number of “job creators” found in their 2014 Senate roster:

“This is the classic Mitt Romney problem. There is a ton of information out there in the public sphere, especially for candidates who made their fortunes through publicly traded corporations. There are SEC filings, court records, and various other reports you can dig up … and frequently the best business decision isn’t necessarily the best political decision,” said Matt Thornton, a Democratic strategist. “The more candidates are going to rely on their business acumen as a qualifier for office, the more they’ll have to defend everything that goes along with their business experience.”

And beyond the presidential race, the 2012 cycle represented a series of cautionary notes about the marketability of business tycoons:

Romney lost in 2012, as did Republican Senate candidates Rick Berg in North Dakota and Tom Smith in Pennsylvania. Republican hopefuls John Raese in West Virginia and Linda McMahon in Connecticut have lost multiple races despite spending millions from their own pockets. A half-dozen other Republican self-funders lost 2012 Senate primaries despite outspending their opponents.

Going back a bit further, nobody in politics can entirely forget the awe-inspiring disaster of the 2010 Meg Whitman candidacy for governor of California, in which her unlimited funds drove her to run a campaign that relied on a mind-numbing ad overkill that probably did her and fellow California Republicans more harm than good.

So it’s a bit early to declare 2014 the year of self-funders mesmerizing voters by playing the green tambourine of their good fortune in the private sector.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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