Money Can’t Buy Them Love

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:28pm

They say money can’t buy you love, but don’t tell some House candidates that the adage can also be true in politics.

Earlier this month, self-funding by House candidates this cycle hit the $59.3 million mark, surpassing the $59.2 million candidates spent out of pocket overall in 2006, according to the Federal Election Commission.

And with more than three months to go until Nov. 4, there is no question that the final bill will be much higher, as Democrats get overeager and Republicans fight for their lives in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to chuck the “Millionaire’s Amendment.”

This cycle, wealthy candidates have encountered mixed success, ranging from the spectacular flameout of Jim Oberweis (R), a Chicagoland dairy magnate who spent more than $2 million on a losing bid in a special House election — one of his several setbacks this decade — to Sandy Treadwell, the former New York State Republican Party chairman who has spent about $1.9 million of his own money running a solid challenge against freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D).

The National Republican Congressional Committee made it clear earlier in the cycle that wealthy recruits were the way to go, bringing in Treadwell, free-spending businessman Chris Hackett (R) to challenge Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), and state Rep. Jay Love (R) in retiring Rep. Terry Everett’s (R-Ala.) district.

And so far, all three GOP candidates not only have made good on their pledges to foot their own bill, but they are running credible campaigns under less-than-ideal conditions. Hackett has given his campaign more than $1.1 million to keep pace with Carney, while Love, a former restaurant proprietor who has spent $650,000 on his race, is considered the slight frontrunner in the race with Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D).

But for every Treadwell, Hackett or Love, there’s one, two, three or more other candidates in 2008 — overwhelmingly Republicans — who, like Oberweis, appear to have squandered millions of dollars on undisciplined, ill-advised or poorly run campaigns.

For instance, ex-Rep. Doug Ose (R) tried to buy his way back into Congress earlier this year, losing in the primary to Golden State conservative icon Tom McClintock (R), a state Senator, in the race to replace retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.)

Ose’s price tag: $2.8 million.

Oberweis famously spent $2.34 million earlier this year to lose a special election to a political unknown, now-Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), in the once-ruby-red district held for decades by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Oberweis’ camp incinerated cash ahead of the special election, running a highly negative campaign spearheaded by Bill Pascoe, a bare-knuckled political grappler legendary in New Jersey politics. Oberweis, who was endorsed by Hastert, will take on Foster again this fall. Whether he makes good on a promise late last year to “be there for whatever it takes,” however, remains to be seen.

The NRCC declined this week to discuss the current crop of self-funding Republican House candidates, but a GOP operative hinted that self-funders have left a sour taste in the mouth of some Republicans, who have buyers’ remorse after perhaps putting too much emphasis on a potential candidate’s net worth during the vetting process.

“A candidate has to be willing to do much more than write a check,” the source said. “An election can’t be bought, which is why Republican candidates with personal resources have been strongly encouraged to raise significant sums of money and put together strong organizations … those that have done so are performing well.”

Another case in point is the northeastern Missouri district now represented by Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R), who is stepping aside to run for governor in the Show Me State. Former state tourism director Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) and state Rep. Bob Onder (R) are locked in a tough primary contest to replace Hulshof, and both candidates have kicked in more than $250,000 of their own so far and are expected to kick in much more if they win next week’s primary.

Still, the St. Louis Post Dispatch took a pass on endorsing any Republican in the Aug. 5 primary.

“Irrespective of their political beliefs, none of the four GOP candidates has demonstrated the seriousness of purpose or the grasp of issues necessary to represent adequately the district’s approximately 620,000 residents,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote July 28. “The candidates differ little on the issues. None of them displays any command of policy. Their campaigns are based on platitudes and, in some cases, misinformation. We can’t recommend any of them.”

While Republicans are staying quiet on the issue, the questionable GOP strategy of recruiting self-funders has provide no shortage of political hay for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has had a field day unearthing unpaid tax bills by wealthy Republican House candidates and their businesses this cycle.

“The Republican strategy of recruiting wealthy self-funders this cycle has bombed,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said. “Now they are stuck with flawed and controversial candidates who have problems paying their taxes, can’t muster any grass-roots support, and are totally bankrupt of any new ideas.”

But Democrats, too, have not been immune from the temptation this cycle. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) will face wealthy newcomer Scott Harper (D) in her suburban Chicago district come November. Harper has given his campaign about $150,000 and raised about twice that, but even in the most ideal environment this year he appears to be making little headway.

In a ballot test of 400 likely general election voters released by the NRCC on Tuesday, Biggert held a 25-point lead, 55 percent to 30 percent, over Harper. The American Viewpoint survey, conducted June 16-17, had a 4.9-point margin of error.

“Congresswoman Biggert’s history and record of constituent service and being an Independent voice in Washington clearly gives her separation in what is a difficult political climate for many incumbents,” Biggert’s polling memo stated.