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Money Doesn’t Always Buy (Electoral) Love, but It Can Help

Scott and Cisneros spent big on their own campaigns and won, while other self-funders tanked

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who won Florida's Senate race over the weekend, spent at least $64 million of his own money on his campaign. That kind of self-funding doesn’t always pay off though. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who won Florida's Senate race over the weekend, spent at least $64 million of his own money on his campaign. That kind of self-funding doesn’t always pay off though. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The victories of California Democrat Gil Cisneros and Florida Republican Rick Scott are yet another reminder that when it comes to running for public office, having personal wealth can be pretty helpful.

Both candidates spent millions of their own money and ultimately prevailed in races that went on long past Election Day. Cisneros, who won the lottery in 2010, kicked at least $9 million of his own money into his campaign for California’s 39th District, which The Associated Press called in his favor on Saturday.

The following afternoon, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson conceded the Florida Senate race to Scott, who poured at least $64 million of his own money into the campaign. That doesn’t include any personal funds he may have spent for the recount.

But money can’t always buy love.

Funding an entire campaign with personal money often isn’t a winning strategy. Of the top 10 candidates this cycle who raised the highest percentage of their campaign cash from themselves, nine lost, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of them didn’t get far, losing in their primaries.

The lone winner was Maryland’s David Trone, who ranked 10th on the list. He defeated state Del. Aruna Miller in the Democratic primary for Maryland’s 6th District in June, setting him up for an easy victory in the safe Democratic seat in November. That primary made Trone the biggest self-funder in House race history, beating the previous record — set by himself in his losing 2016 primary bid for the neighboring 8th District. Trone spent nearly $16 million of his own money on his 2018 election, or nearly 97 percent of what he raised. 

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It’s worth noting that the self-funding totals that the Center for Responsive Politics uses are from pre-general reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. That means they don’t include personal loans or contributions made after Oct. 17. Post-general reports have not yet been filed. But for candidates who continued to invest their own money in the final days of the campaign, Roll Call has included personal checks from 24- and 48-hour reports filed with the FEC in the final days of the campaign.

By far the largest self-funder, by millions of dollars, was Scott. As of Oct. 17, he’d contributed more than $51,000,000 of his own money. And it kept coming. Five days after that report was due to the FEC, he made another $7.4 million contribution. Two days later, he kicked in another $3.8 million. Before the month was over, he’d given his campaign another $1.6 million.

Scott, though, is the exception. Among the top 20 biggest self-funders (by amount), only five won this year. Besides Trone, the winners were Indiana’s Mike Braun, who unseated Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Braun loaned his campaign at least $11.5 million, more than half of which was during the GOP primary when he defeated two rival congressmen. Republicans fretted that he wasn’t spending more of his own money during the summer campaign against Donnelly, but he dipped back into his own coffers later in the summer and fall. He loaned his campaign nearly $2 million alone on Oct. 25.

Feinstein faced fellow Democrat Kevin de León, a leader of the state Senate, due to California’s unusual top-two primary system in which all candidates run on the same ballot and the top two, regardless of party affiliation advance to the general election. 

Feinstein, the 10th wealthiest member of Congress according to Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress index, contributed more than $1.7 million to her campaign and loaned her campaign $8 million, according to her pre-general report. She raised a total of $19.4 million in her campaign, while De León raised nearly $1.7 million total. Feinstein won 54 percent of the vote, defeating De León by 9 points.

Among the largest self-funders who lost were New Jersey Republican Bob Hugin, who spent at least $36 million of his own money on a challenge to Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. He lost the race, but forced national Democrats to spend resources in a blue state. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Scott Wallace spent more than $12.7 million to try to unseat GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, mainly in loans to his campaign.

Another notable loss was former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who lost his bid for Tennessee’s open Senate seat to GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn. He contributed at least $7.5 million to his campaign.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. 

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