In hopes of staying financially competitive with Republicans in the 2004 cycle, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) has put a premium on recruiting candidates capable of self-funding bids for the 2004 cycle.
“We are trying to find candidates who might be able to self-fund in almost every state,” said Corzine, noting, however, that landing wealthy candidates was not the “overall priority” of his recruiting efforts.
Corzine, a former Goldman, Sachs and Co. CEO, set the bar for wealthy candidates, spending better than $60 million in 2000 to defeat former Gov. Jim Florio in the Democratic primary and then-Rep. Bob Franks (R) in the general election.
“The chairman is a self-funder and it is a priority,” said one Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity.
Among the well-to-do Democrats said to be considering bids in 2004 are: Erskine Bowles (N.C.), who lost an open-seat Senate race in 2002, St. Louis County developer Bob Clark (Mo.), stockbroker — and founder of USA Harvest — Stan Curtis and 2003 lieutenant governor candidate Charlie Owen in Kentucky, businessman Hayne Hipp (S.C.), financier Blair Hull (Ill.) and former banker Alex Sink (Fla.). Democrats are also talking to Marsha Perelman, a wealthy Philadelphia-area philanthropist, about challenging Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (see accompanying story).
Only Hull, who is involved in a multi-candidate Democratic primary, and Bowles, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, who is seen as the likely replacement if Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) decides to vacate his seat, appear to be in the “likely to run” column at this point.
“If the DSCC could find a self-funder in Pennsylvania and a self-funder in Florida they would be in heaven,” said a Democratic strategist. Both states feature prohibitively expensive media markets.
The importance of selecting candidates able to largely foot the bill for a campaign is heightened in this cycle, given the Republican tilt of the Senate playing field and the uncertain fate of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
Democrats have 19 seats to defend in 2004, while Republicans have 15 Senators up for re-election. So far only Sens. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) have announced they will not run in 2004.
In addition, while large portions of BCRA were declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel Friday, it upheld the ban on issue ads financed with soft, nonfederal dollars, a source of funding the DSCC had aggressively exploited over the past several cycles under the guidance of former Sens. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Robert Torricelli (N.J.).
The lack of soft money to pay for waves of television commercials likely means that individual candidates could face more pressure than ever to provide the necessary funds to stay competitive with their GOP opponents.
“It costs a lot of money to run and win as a challenger, and there is probably going to be less money directly available to candidates from the party committees,” acknowledged one Democratic consultant.
Surprisingly, the DSCC was able to nearly match the National Republican Senatorial Committee in dollars raised in the first three months of the year. They ended the quarter with $1 million more in the bank but also with a weighty $6 million debt.
The DSCC’s focus on finding and convincing wealthy candidates to run for office is nothing new, however.
Kerrey began the trend in the 1996 cycle when as chairman of the campaign arm he focused heavily on candidates with an entrepreneurial background and who, more often than not, were largely able to fund their own races.
Democratic candidates in Virginia (now-Gov. Mark Warner), Oregon (Tom Bruggere) and Idaho (Walt Minnick) spent significant sums of their own money in general elections they ultimately lost. A fourth wealthy candidate, pharmaceuticals executive Charlie Sanders (N.C.), lost to Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in a Democratic primary. The group was playfully dubbed “Kerrey’s Merry Millionaires.”
“I made a virtue out of a necessity,” Kerrey explained in an interview Thursday.
In the 1994 election cycle Democrats had lost eight seats and quickly saw their ranks further thinned by the party switches of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), which were followed by a slew of retirement announcements at the end of 1994 and early 1995.
Kerrey said he didn’t have to hunt for the millionaires who would eventually make the races because “they wanted to be candidates.”
“I was not going after them but more encouraging them,” said the former Nebraska Senator, now the president of the New School in New York City.
In the 1998 cycle, Kerrey met with a bit more success in pursuing the strategy, recruiting then-little-known trial lawyer John Edwards to challenge Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.). Edwards spent more than $10 million to win the primary and defeat Faircloth 51 percent to 47 percent in the general election.
Other wealthy candidates did not fare as well: cookie magnate Michael Coles, who had lost a well-financed bid against then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1996, fell to Sen. Paul Coverdell 52 percent to 47 percent.
Owen lost a primary challenge to former Rep. Scotty Baesler (Ky.), although he dished out better than $7 million in the effort.
The 2000 cycle saw the ascension of Torricelli to the head of the Democrats’ campaign committee and a continued commitment to wealthy candidates that paid surprising dividends.
In addition to Corzine, Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Mark Dayton (Minn.) ousted incumbents by devoting considerable sums from their own pocket.
Cantwell, a former RealNetworks executive, spent more than $10 million to beat then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R); Dayton, an heir to a retail marketing fortune, won a crowded primary with a $5 million personal donation and ousted then-Sen. Rod Grams with another $11 million out of his own pocket.
Another wealthy candidate, attorney Ed Bernstein (Nev.), lost to Sen. John Ensign (R) in an open-seat race while spending more than $1 million on the contest.
Senate Democrats wound up picking up four seats in 2000, throwing the chamber into a deadlock that was broken by the party switch of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.).
The financial strength of Corzine, Cantwell, Dayton and Bernstein allowed the DSCC to focus its resources in other states including Missouri and Michigan, where Democratic candidates toppled GOP Senators.
“The reality of the 2000 cycle was that because of having self-funding candidates in hotly contested races the resources were freed to go into states where there were equally skilled candidates without personal money,” said a Democratic strategist.
After a 2002 cycle that saw only one partially self-financing Democratic candidate in a targeted race (Bowles), there appears to be a renewed commitment by the DSCC to finding wealthy candidates to run for office.
There are several advantages to such an approach, said Democrats interviewed for this story.
“The reality is that challengers don’t win without very substantial funding,” said one Democratic consultant.
Another Democratic consultant noted that “in the end we will be outspent by Republicans, but in the beginning and middle game it is important for our candidates to exist and survive.”
The profile of self-financing candidates, most of whom have never before run for any type of political office, also make them an attractive commodity.
Typically, these sort of candidates “do have a great story and know how to organize successfully and have an ability to survive [financially] while running a campaign,” explained Kerrey.
And, voters have consistently shown little concern about heavy personal spending by a candidate in the face of arguments that they are trying to “buy” a seat.
“People have no problem with people self-funding their campaigns,” said a Democratic strategist. “They don’t have to contribute and the candidate is not beholden to anyone in particular.”
Recruiting wealthy candidates is not without its potential pitfalls, however.
One Democratic strategist called it a “risky recruitment strategy” because not every wealthy candidate, many of whom are political neophytes, has the skills necessary to run and win a statewide campaign.
Another consultant said that in certain cycles and certain states voters “are looking for folks who are more experienced,” which tends to undercut self-financers.
The ideal self-financing candidate is someone like former White House Chief of Staff Bowles, the strategist said, who “not only has the ability to fund their own race but enough of a public policy background that they are not walking into a U.S. Senate race as a first-time candidate.”