Self-Funders: The Next Front in the War on the GOP Establishment

The brewing conservative war on the Republican establishment has gotten a lot of ink lately, and we can only expect more of it with the rise and rise of Marco Rubio. 

The main front in this war is ideological: party leaders in Washington supporting moderates when a conservative can win. See: Crist vs. Rubio or Hoffman vs. Scozzafava.
 
But there's another front in this war that deserves just as much if not more attention: the tendency of gazillionaire self-funders to parachute into races with minimal political experience and a long list of liabilities, and get taken seriously by D.C. and local elites solely because they can plop down tens of millions of dollars on TV ads and a feeding trough of political consultants. 
 
Last year's Rebuild the Party platform which I co-wrote, and which was endorsed by a number of people in the political community including RNC Chairman Michael Steele, had this to say about the pervasive "money-first" culture of our campaigns: 

This means kick starting a generational transition to the new fundraising model. Right now, we cannot compete with the Democrats' scalable online fundraising machine and if this is not corrected our party will face a long-term financial deficit. A big part of this will be growing a millions-strong network of supporters and giving them something to rally around. Moreover, our candidate recruitment should focus less on a candidate's ability to collect $2,300 checks or to self-fund than on the strength of their message -- which will ultimately attract more small and high dollar donors online and off. Traditional fundraising is still important, but in modern campaigns, it's more like startup venture capital money than a long-term cash cow. 

In February, when the GOP was still in a fetal position after the drubbing they received at the hands of Obama's half-billion dollar online juggernaut, I expanded on this point: 


The lesson here is that fundraising is not an independent variable. Fundraising is a dependent variable and the independent variable is the message. There does not exist an innate ability to fundraise independent of a strong message -- unless the candidate is fabulously wealthy and can self-fund. And in cases where there might be, all the fundraising in the world cannot overcome a poor message. If a candidate is wealthy or has rich friends, but has no message, the GOP should run -- not walk -- away from that candidate.
My own experiences in the trenches this year suggest that establishment Republicans still haven't learned their lesson. They're still addicted to the size of a candidate's personal checkbook or overhyped end-of-quarter stories, and too often neglect building a grassroots organization or developing a strong, early, and authentic connection between the candidate direct to voters. 
 
Self-funders are particulary popular among money-addled political insiders for a few key reasons. First, their personal money takes the need for much party money off the table, or so it's thought. Second, they can afford to pay consultants, and lots of them, and for eye-popping amounts. Third, they will often refill the coffers of local parties in a wink and nod exchange for much-needed endorsements. 
 
But the record of self-funders in American politics is notoriously poor. In California alone, about a half dozen of them have spectacularly crashed on the rocks, from the campaign that gave us Arianna Huffington in 1994 to Al Checchi's $40 million gubernatorial campaign in 1998, Jane Harman's effort in the same primary, and Steve Westly's losing 2006 campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor. 
 
This year, Jon Corzine was unable to put away Chris Christie with his vast personal fortune, ending one of the few self-funding success stories in American politics. And Michael Bloomberg spent $102 million in one city to eeke out a five point victory against bland party apparatchik Bill Thompson. The size of Bloomberg's bank account in reaching for a third term (for which term limits were repealed) was cited as a factor in the last minute closing of the race. 
 
At the federal level, ask Senator Pete Coors how well self-funding works. Or President Mitt Romney. 
 
It's not just that these candidates were running unwinnable races. Often they were way ahead after an early barrage of advertising. But they blew it, despite their money. 
 
The dollar signs dancing around in consultants' heads don't make up for the fact that most self-funders tend to be subpar candidates for important structural reasons. First, they're political dilettantes unfamiliar with the rigors of elected politics. They make rookie mistakes. They assume their records before their recent entries into politics aren't relevant or won't be scrutinized. They have less political acumen or knowledge than many of the people I follow on Twitter, or even most of them. 
 
And that's just when they start running. Once they do, they run overkill levels of TV, and often resort to slashing negative ads to dislodge better known competitors, which drives their own negatives up. (This was particularly true of the famous Checchi-Harman "murder-suicide" in 1998, opening the path for the underfunded Gray Davis to squeak through in the last two weeks.) The gaudiness of the campaign operation tends to infect media coverage late in the game, and that's when self-funders really get worked over by the traditional press corps, which tends to counter-balance the perceived buying of the election with uniquely skeptical coverage when voters are actually paying attention. And as any student of campaigns will tell you, earned media is far, far more valuable than paid media, even at inflated levels of spending. 
 
From an ideological perspective, self-funders are political chameleons. Since they're somewhat politically attuned, they're likely to have been a donor, but like most big donors, they're pragmatists who've played both sides. And it's not uncommon for these rich candidates to have made donations to fashionable lefty social crusades. The country-clubbers who have supported Focus on the Family or the National Rifle Association with their philanthrophic dollars are few and far between.
 
For conservatives, this trend is just as troubling as national party leaders seeking out moderates in states where a conservative can win. While we welcome recent converts, we always have a right to ask whether it's for the right reasons. Rich candidates tend to be disproportionately moderate themselves, and aren't as accountable to the conservative movement because they don't need our dollars.
 
And there's another element here that shouldn't be tolerated: corruption. To put it indelicately, when a mega-self-funder gets in, people get bought. Local parties are capitalized to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars with endorsements magically appearing shortly thereafter. People who couldn't afford to take salaries before can now take salaries. Others get put on the campaign payroll. Elected officials who've fought hard and risen through the ranks suddenly become fans of political "outsiders", leaving their own integrity and intellectual honesty open to question.  
 
In any system where money rules, conservatives lose. When endorsements and political support are rooted in money, not principle, that's just as great an insult as choosing a moderate over a conservative in a red state on electability grounds. This is not a matter of being a campaign finance zealot as it of avoiding bad and unreliable candidates who tend to lose at alarming rates. 
 
To be clear, I don't think everyone who's put in a dime of their own money to a race is the bad guy. We would have been much better off in NY-23 had we chosen that guy. There are many very good local businesspeople running for Congress who will put in some seed money to get started, but ultimately rely on a strong network of donors to get them over the top. The problem is those who pledge to spend at astronomical rates so they can defy the political laws of gravity, and in turn fool (or buy off) the political class who wrongly believe that lots of money can overcome an unknown candidate with a bad message. 

 

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For a 2010 GOP Primary Example, See PA6

This is the race to keep Jim Gerlach's seat.

Curt Schroder is a mainstream conservative with a record of standing up against party bosses who is being challenged by a venture-capitalist named Steve Welch. Welch was steered into this race by party bosses even though he does not live in the district.

He lives in PA7, where the bosses wanted dinosaur insider Pat Meehan to run for the nomination unopposed. Welch's campaign manager just happens to be a friend of Meehan.

Steve may not be such a bad guy, or bad addition to PA politics. But he was registered as a Democrat just last year, and gave money to Joe Sestak in 2006. So in this particular race, it was insane for the party to steer him towards taking on Schroder.

I believe-- and this is just my thinking-- that the party is exacting some revenge on Schroder. Curt voted against keeping Perzel-- a GOP party boss and insider-- as Speaker of the House a couple years ago. As Perzel was just indicted for corruption, though, you have to ask yourself if that was such a poor decision.

question

This is a big problem on our side of the aisle too. From my perspective, it's both an essentially unavoiable function of the grotesque wealth inequality we have in this country and a clear and present danger to our democracy.

So would conservatives *ever* endorse any measures to democratize economic power? Employee ownership incentives, changes to corporate governance and/or corporate personhood, equity-building programs, progressive taxation, workplace democracy, strengthening unions, wealth taxes... is there anything in that list (or anything I'm missing) that folks reading this would support?

I know left and right have very different beliefs about the origins and meaning of wealth, but given that it seems we agree that this is a big problem, I'm just wondering if there's any overlap on thinking about solutions. I know there used to be some pro-labor conservatives and presumably this sort of thing is why.

Start with taxation philosophy

A conversation looking to find common ground on those matters, I would wager, would start with refashioning our taxation philosophy.

There's a lot conservatives would consider if it entailed the abolition of income and property taxes in favor of a consumption tax of some sort. Starting there, I imagine things like an increased gasoline tax and estate tax would get back on the table.

If, though, you are merely interested in redistributing wealth for philosophical egalitarian reasons, you will probably always be disappointed.

There's a lot conservatives

There's a lot conservatives would consider if it entailed the abolition of income and property taxes in favor of a consumption tax of some sort. Starting there, I imagine things like an increased gasoline tax and estate tax would get back on the table.

If, though, you are merely interested in redistributing wealth for philosophical egalitarian reasons, you will probably always be disappointed.

A perfect example of what the earlier poster was talking about. You've just advocated redistributing wealth in inegalitarian ways for philosophical reasons. Removing more of the tax burden from those who can more easily afford it and putting it on the backs of those who can't. Consumption taxes (including gas taxes) are regressive; they fall the hardest on those who can least afford them, and drive up the cost of everything. Big oil profiteering throughout the Bush administration (when the "president" was a man from oil who refused to do anything to check the problem) resulted in a theoretical economic "growth" period that, in practice, looked more like a 7-year recession, and drove up the prices of every consumer good that moved via gas-powered conveyance (basically everything). There isn't a lot of room for common ground when everything the conservative pols do is aimed at making their rich financiers even richer at the expense of everyone else. To the earlier poster, conservatism is the ideology of the wealthy and corporate interests; they would be nullifying themselves if they worked against those interests.

Sorry, Charlie. You are grasping...

...and hence clearly not interested in actually having a conversation. Just picking a fight.

There are way too many unknowns in what I presented as a coversation-starter for you to jump to the conclusions you just did,

Sales tax vs. VAT? What mechanism can we put in place to rebate lower income earners? To what items do we apply the consumption tax? How much may labor demand rise due to lower-- non-existent-- corporate taxes? What is the additional income to middle-class home-owners who no longer pay property taxes? How much more efficiently will local governments be able to plan in the absence of wildely fluctuating income and property tax revenues? If conservatives welcome an estate tax in this paradign-- encouraging rich people to consume or invest for the betterment of the economy-- isn't that worth anything?

Whatever you tax, you get less of. Currently, we have too much debt, and not enough jobs. But you insist on taxing wages, and taxing businesses. Granted, I would tax consumption, and our economy is predicated, currently, on the debt-purchase of extraneous crap. But I want to break that cycle. You?

I am interested in fixing our problems with progressive and new(ish) ideas. You seem to be taking pages from the thirties. You well may win the argument, but we'll be worse off for it.

actually

See this is a good example: redistribution for you guys is always about these abstract "philosophical egalitarian" reasons, but there's a pile of evidence suggesting that honest democracy is incompatible with gross inequality. That's not abstract or philosophical, it goes to the survival of our country.

Is there any level of inequality that'd make you want to do something about it? Like, if we had a basically dynastic political system with 30 or 40 families controlling nearly all the wealth, would you want to do something then? Your tea party wing would, I'm pretty sure. And we're not there yet, but we're certainly headed there, and far closer to that than many progressives are comfortable with.

At any rate, I'm less interested in redistribution than in getting the distribution right in the first place, which is why I always thought that at some base level there was a conservative argument in favor of labor. But if not, good to know that there's at least some opening there for consumption & Pigouvian taxes, at least from some quarters.

 It's a sad case that

 It's a sad case that republicans will not help the middle class. They think they have all the answers by constantly supporting the constitution, federalism, and failed ideologies. After 8 years we know that republicans will never reach the last 20% to 30% of the population. 

Here  is some of my solutions to some current problems. It should be liked by both democrats and republicans. However, democrats will not go for drilling for oil or nuclear and republicans think my suggestions are too liberal.

Trapped in a corner 

Is it the wealthy that have it wrong?

Yes if they were poor instead of wealthy then the poor would not feel as bad because they are doing as well as everybody else. But they still suffer. I think the problem with (humor intended) the poor is that they are not wealthy. Yes, that is a joke, but if the true goal is to build up the poor or reduce poverty, then it is not the wealthy that need to change. Somebody smarter than me once said, 'you can not help the poor by tearing down the rich'.

What is hampering the development of oil reserves in the US? The US uses vast amounts of energy and has energy but instead of using our own energy we purchase it from other countries ... I am not saying that those other countries are not better off with our money and with jobs in energy. But shouldn't we give jobs to citizens of this country instead of creating jobs in China and everywhere else? China needs oil, why don't we sell it to them?

It is not un-Christian to be wealthy. In fact one is expected to give to those in need - How can one give what they do not themselves have?

Wow, Patrick

You usually knock out pretty good posts in which you nevertheless get one or two things spectacularly worng. Here, you've inverted that formula, just as you've inverted reality itself.

The main front in this war is ideological: party leaders in Washington supporting moderates when a conservative can win. See: Crist vs. Rubio or Hoffman vs. Scozzafava.

And

For conservatives, this trend is just as troubling as national party leaders seeking out moderates in states where a conservative can win.

The caveat about "when a conservative can win" is new, and, if the regular conservative posters here are any indication, pretty much unique to you, as a qualifier. Still, this notion that there's some vast sea of moderates pulling the support of "party leaders in Washington" away from conservatives (or that party leaders seek out such characters) is a fairy tale so disconnected from reality that even children would roll their eyes and groan at its far-fetchedness.

Where are all these so-called "moderates"?

You'll struggle in vain to find them in congress, where the  Republican caucus is as far to the right as it has been in the lifetime of anyone reading these words, and has been shedding its moderates for years (in the Senate, Republicans don't have a single member with an ACU rating of something like 82% conservative or higher). The ideological jihadists would have everyone believe the moderates--who are often only "moderate" when placed in comparison with outright fascists--are getting the support, but in the real world, the candidates who get the party backing are almost all very conservative conservatives. The party men back a moderate only grudgingly and when it's clear a conservative can't win, and, in case you missed it, Newt Gingrich (whom no one in their right mind would accuse of having a moderte bone in his body) was proven right by what happened in NY23. The jihadists aren't heroic figures fighting some grand crusade; they're half-witted zealots fencing with phantoms.

Rich candidates tend to be disproportionately moderate themselves, and aren't as accountable to the conservative movement because they don't need our dollars.

 And there's another element here that shouldn't be tolerated: corruption. To put it indelicately, when a mega-self-funder gets in, people get bought. Local parties are capitalized to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars with endorsements magically appearing shortly thereafter. People who couldn't afford to take salaries before can now take salaries. Others get put on the campaign payroll. Elected officials who've fought hard and risen through the ranks suddenly become fans of political "outsiders", leaving their own integrity and intellectual honesty open to question.

Again, an inversion of reality. You're not battling corruption, here--you're promoting it. A self-financed candidate may be biased by his own, let's call it, class interests, and he usually has some business of his own to whose bottom line he will dutifully tend, but he isn't owned by the sanctioned bribery that is the U.S. campaign finance system. A preference for that means your argument amounts to one that candidates should be bought and sold like stocks, as is now the case. Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley aren't so much Senators as they are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the health care industry. Joe Lieberman is the Senator From Aetna. If, in fact, you want to know where any elected official stands on a given issue, you need only check the source of his financing. That's corruption.

 

In any system where money rules, conservatives lose.

Yet again, a complete inversion of reality. A money-based system always favors the conservative, because the established interests want to maintain and expand their privileges. The liberals tried to pass health care reform this year, and, as always happens, the big money flowed in and defeated it. Now, instead of health care reform, what's on the table is yet another big right-wing giveaway to corporate America that would, if passed, just end up making it worse for the very people the legislation was initially intended to help. Business as usual.

why is a Senator from CT supporting the insurance biz bad?

Would we expect a CA Senator to bash Hollywood, or a TX Senator to favor banning the use of carbon fuels?

Close to 100K CT residents are supported by the insurance biz.  It's not a narrow special interest in this state.

You're serious?

It's not the job of a senator to represent some damn Big Money interest. It's his job to represent his constituents in his state. On a matter like the public option, Lieberman's constituents are overwhelmingly in favor. He's opposed because what passes for his concern for the welfare of the people in his state is something he's willing to sell, and his price has been met.

The message is important

Right now there is a large number of people who feel disenfranchised; in a recent poll 71% feel angry at congress. I suspect that will lead to a very different congress in 2010 - but beyond that to make any long term improvements those who get elected need to deliver improvements or they will become targets of the anger themselves. Hope and Vision are important.

Let me share this song with you - our country is capable of great things because we are a free people and can and do unit around good things. I know if is a religious song, and gives all credit to God - if you are not religious I hope you still enjoy it.

 

 

If you want to look up the history of this song, you will find it inspirational from the inner city of Los Angeles - Hope is a free gift from God.

Poverty is a real problem in the US and the current economy is making it worse ... the only solution is real living wage jobs and many need to be trained. People in food lines want to work - Children need to be educated so they are able to enter the job force or become small business owners. We need to have blessing to help those who are unfortunate and need help. Businesses are not evil they employ people!

Counting the losers is a bad metric

One thought after reading the post is that counting the losers is a bad metric.

In an era when 90%+ incumbents run for re-election in Congress and Senate and 90%+ of incumbents that run for re-election win, most candidates lose.

As an example, in the 2008 presidential election there were at least 19 candidates that were included in debates. Of these, two (Clinton and Romney) were self-funders. But, of these 19 candidates, only one candidate could won -- meaning the success rate for non-self funders was about 5.88%, while the rate for self-funders was 0%.

At the end of the day, most candidates lose because there are more candidates that there are offices to hold.

Now for a question.

If you were Chuck Schumer in 2007 and looking at the 2008 Senate election in Texas. Given the fact that in order to win the DSCC and the candidate's campaign need to spend $30-$40 million, and given the option of a movement/netroots progressive (Rick Noriega) who might be able to put together $3-$5 million (with most of the coming from netroots progressives that would otherwise put that money in other races) or a trial lawyer worth more than $100+ million (Mikal Watts) who will immediately put $10 million in and spend at least another $10 million (if not more). Which candidate would you pick?

Schumer picked the self-funder (until he dropped out)...

Money isn't everything, but in some races its the only thing that will give a candidate a chance to win.

2006 Virginia Senate

In the 2006 primary to face George Allen, self-funded DC lobbyist Harris Miller faced off against Jim Webb, a "netroots" candidate and former Reagan Navy Secretary who had earned his chops with the left by the turning against the Iraq War.

In that primary, Webb narrowly defeated Miller. Neither was given much of a shot to defeat George Allen, a likely 2008 presidential frontrunner. 

The rest, as we know, is history. 

If Miller had been the candidate, would he have been in a similar position to defeat Allen after macaca? The underfunded Webb could point to a past as a Republican and a military background that could appeal to the Hampton Roads area. Democrats were far better off picking Webb, the candidate without a clear funding base, than they were in going with Miller, whose only asset was his money. 

Schumer wasn't wrong that Noriega couldn't defeat Cornyn. The trouble is that the phony, slick trial lawyer Mikal Watts likely couldn't either, because he didn't have a story that could connect with conservative Texans. 

Fortunate, Unfortunate, Neutral

Money talks, but is not all powerful. How much is a person on the ground, going door to door worth? How about someone who is making phone calls to their neighbors & friends about a candidate? 

Patrick, I do have to make a small correction regarding NY-23. While the MSM & Democrats try mightily to position Dede as a moderate/independent/super-duper cool Republican, in truth she is a far left wing ideolouge who did not come close to mainstream of Republican thought in this district.

At least for 2010, $$$ is going to lose its power to a degree. The intelligent Republican candidate will be part of the TEAparty movement & utilize that energy & passion - of course, the intelligent Republican candidate will need to be authentic in center-right conservative Republican philosophy & values or risk a huge backlash from these same people.

If Dede is so far outside of the mainstream

how is it that she has been serving in the NY state house since 1999?

How many "far left wing ideolouges" have a lifetime "A" rating from the NRA and decade as a Republican state senator?

I guess you incoherence on this points explains why we later find you using the words "intelligent" and teabagger in the same sentence.

 

Nice

At least you spelled incoherence correctly - but don't know the definition. Perhaps you should check out this wonderful site...

Actually, if one takes a few moments to do some research, one will find that many otherwise liberal legislators (especially those in suburban/rural districts) are very careful to keep their high NRA ratings. Why, you ask? The NRA voter guide - they hope that high ratings there & the endorsement (heavily weighted to incumbents) over any opponent will equal votes - which it has for many years. Many of us who are life members of the NRA are pushing for reform of how endorsements are doled out by our group, which should lead to some interesting discussions in the next few years.

As far as Liberal Republicans - Lincoln Chaffee & Arlen Specter used to call themselves Republicans.

Merry CHRISTmas!

On Self Funders Corrupting State Parties

See Bloomberg, Michael and the New York State Republican Party