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Politics & Poker: Self-Funders Could Influence Several ’10 Contests

News of the demise of the self-funder has been grossly exaggerated.

The biggest in history, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), took it on the chin in last week’s elections — Corzine losing despite his multimillion-dollar investment, and Bloomberg falling far short of the landslide he was expecting, considering the staggering $100 million-plus he spent.

[IMGCAP(1)]It wasn’t just the eye-popping figures that were the source of so much conversation and criticism — it was how the money was deployed, producing an avalanche of negative ads. Corzine’s most effective ad, after all — and hey, he almost won — reminded voters that his chief opponent was, well, fat. Very edifying.

But despite the tut-tutting of the political classes — one reform group even used Corzine’s failure and Bloomberg’s middling success to renew its call for public financing of Congressional and statewide campaigns — self-funding is alive and well as a political weapon. In fact, in these recessionary times, it’s more essential than ever, as campaign contributions plummet. Maybe not at the Bloomberg-Corzine level — that’s obscene. And that may serve as a warning to Linda McMahon (R), the World Wrestling Entertainment impresario who could be ready to spend as much as $50 million of her own money on her Senate bid in Connecticut.

But a few hundred thousand dollars here, a well-placed million there — now that’s effective.

Lost in the blizzard of cash in the Garden State and the five boroughs of New York City was the fact that self-funding played a significant role in one of the other top elections in 2009. A six-figure investment by Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party

nominee in the special Congressional election in New York last week, helped shake up that volatile race, and chased the Republican nominee out of the contest before Election Day even came.

The $120,000 or so that Hoffman sunk in the race was far more significant than Sarah Palin and other conservative leaders rallying to his side, even though they got all the attention. It was Hoffman’s money that bought him a solid team of consultants, Hoffman’s money that signaled to the political world that, despite his presence on the ballot on a minor party line, he was going to wage a serious campaign.

In the 2010 cycle, the money of self-funders could play a big role in races from Massachusetts to California:

• In the Massachusetts special Senate election, will mega-millionaire Steven Pagliuca, running against seasoned officeholders, vault into the top tier of Democratic candidates in the next month?

• Will the millions of Tom Ganley (R), the Cleveland auto dealer, drain the resources of the Republican favorite, ex-Rep. Rob Portman, before Portman even gets to the super-tough general election in Ohio? The same can be asked of real estate developer Patrick Hughes, running against Rep. Mark Kirk for the GOP Senate nomination in Illinois.

• Will the presence of wealthy GOP challengers, Randy Altschuler and Richard Hanna, in two New York House races make incumbent Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop and Michael Arcuri, respectively, sweat in their potentially competitive districts?

• Will self-funders Doug Pike (D) and Steven Welch (R) emerge as their parties’ nominees in Pennsylvania’s highly competitive 6th district? And if so, just how expensive is the general election liable to get in the costly Philadelphia media market?

• Do long-shot Republicans Curtis Coleman in Arkansas and John Chacas in Nevada have a prayer of becoming serious contenders for their respective states’ Senate nominations because of the riches they bring to the campaign?

• Is Sen. David Vitter (La.) on edge because there’s still the possibility that wealthy Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne may challenge him in the Republican primary?

• Does the fortune Suzan DelBene (D) made at Microsoft give her a better chance of ousting Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) than the Microsoft alumna who previously ran against him, Darcy Burner?

• Are Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, well-hyped Republicans running for governor and Senate, respectively, in California, truly great candidates, or are they merely gold-plated?

Beyond these questions — and self-funders’ money could be a factor in several other elections — there’s the inescapable fact that several potentially vulnerable House Members have personal fortunes they can dip into if times get tough. That list includes Reps. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) and Harry Teague (D-N.M.).

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) loaned his campaign $500,000 in the third quarter, a reflection that his bid for a fourth term against a wealthy challenger will be an expensive campaign and possibly his most competitive.

Teague, meanwhile, finds himself in a grudge match with an old friend and fellow oil patch millionaire, former Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who wants his old job back. Pearce has never used his own money in his campaigns before, but he has not ruled out the possibility of doing so this time, given Teague’s willingness to self-fund last time around. This could produce one of the most expensive House races in the country next year, in one of the cheapest districts to run political ads.

Pity the poor residents of southern New Mexico. While oil may not be as abundant in the Permian Basin as it once was, cash for campaign consultants could be gushing — and with it, an unprecedented number of toxic political ads.

Which brings us back to Bloomberg. Back in 2001, when he ran and won his first term as a Republican, Bloomberg hired several Democratic consultants. This brought a gentle rebuke for the consultants from then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Eight years later, though he’s now an Independent (and ran on the Republican ballot line, among others), Bloomberg once again used several Democratic strategists, including Howard Wolfson, Doug Schoen, Josh Isay, Hank Sheinkopf, Basil Smikle and Ken Strasma.

Hope they enjoyed the payday — and the knowledge that, by helping Bloomberg win, they’ll have helped shut Democrats out of City Hall in one of the most Democratic cities in the nation for a full 20 years when his third term ends. Imagine what the Democratic nominee, city Comptroller Bill Thompson, who finished less than 5 points behind Bloomberg despite being outspent more than 10 to 1, could have done with some of that high-priced help.

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