Even before the polls open Tuesday, the midterm congressional elections are making history: A record number of wealthy House and Senate candidates are spending their own money to run for office, a new analysis provided to CNN shows.
Sixty-one self-funders have spent a combined $213 million of their own money to fund their campaigns, according to a tally by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks election activity.
The previous fundraising high for congressional self-funders – $166.3 million – came in 2012 when 42 candidates plowed substantial sums into their own campaigns, the center’s analysis shows.
The surge in self-funding comes as the cost of elections skyrockets and two years after the best-known self-funder in American politics, Donald Trump, used his money and celebrity to capture the White House.
Congressional elections alone are poised to surpass the $5 billion mark this year, as energized small donors contribute heavily to individual Democratic candidates and wealthy contributors in both parties send big checks to super PACs active in the midterms.
The sheer cost of running a campaign in this free-for-all spending environment likely is a big factor in “attracting more candidates who can pay their own way,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’ executive director.
“We’ll have to see whether throwing in more candidates with their own bankrolls results in more victories,” she added.
Leading the way this year: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican hoping to oust Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in one of the marquee Senate races of Tuesday’s election. Scott, a former health care executive has poured $51 million of his fortune into the contest, according to data from the center and the Federal Election Commission.
That’s far ahead of the No. 2 self-funder running for Congress, New Jersey Republican Bob Hugin. The former pharmaceutical executive has loaned his campaign $27.5 million. Hugin hopes to knock off two-term Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, in political peril, following a 2017 federal corruption case against him that ended in a mistrial.
Maryland Democrat David Trone, who co-founded a chain of Total Wine & More stores, tops the self-funders seeking House seats. Trone, making his second bid for Congress, has put in just shy of $16 million in the race, according to federal campaign finance records.
The center’s analysis examined House and Senate candidates who raised at least $500,000 and relied on their own funds for at least half their campaign money. It doesn’t count state or local races, such as the Illinois governor’s contest where Democrat Jay Pritzker has claimed the title of largest self-funder in US history by donating an eye-popping $161.5 million to his campaign.
Pritzker, a billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel chain, faces a multimillionaire Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a former private-equity executive who also is tapping into his fortune on his re-election bid.
Jay Young, executive director of Common Cause Illinois, said the explosion in self-funding “feels as though if you have enough money, you can capture whatever office you want just off the strength of that money alone.”
“It shifts power away from people who should be holding the power – ordinary voters,” Young said.
Historically, most self-financed candidates haven’t succeeded at the ballot box.
For instance, the previous self-funding record-holder, tech executive Meg Whitman, lost her 2010 bid for California governor to Democrat Jerry Brown by nearly 13 percentage points, despite plowing $144 million of her own money into the race.
Other notable self-funders who faltered include Texas industrialist Ross Perot, who self-financed an independent bid for the presidency in 1992; Linda McMahon, who spent nearly $99 million on back-to-back failed US Senate bids in Connecticut in 2010 and 2012 and Mitt Romney, who put nearly $45 million into his failed 2008 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Brendan Fischer of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center said asking donors for money helps candidates build a support base.
“Fundraising requires that a candidate makes appeals to voters and listen to the interests of other people besides themselves,” he said. “That can help create the movement necessary to mount a legitimate campaign.”
Some candidates have bucked the trend, including New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine whose $60 million accounted for 95% of the money that went into his successful 2010 US Senate campaign.
BIllionaires for president?
Trump, who plowed hefty $66.1 million of his real-estate fortune into the 2016 presidential race, is another notable exception. But his money accounted for just shy of 20% of his total fundraising.
He also drew legions of donors who contributed in small amounts to back his political ambitions.
Nor was he a typical candidate. Trump entered the White House contest in 2015, already famous for his star turn on the “The Apprentice” reality-show franchise, and his populist message and brash rhetoric kept him in the spotlight throughout the campaign.
But his success may have paved the way for other super-wealthy candidates to take a shot the White House.
At least two Democratic billionaires active in Tuesday’s midterms – the moderate former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and liberal San Francisco hedge-fund founder Tom Steyer – are weighing 2020 White House bids of their own.
Both have starred in their own ads, and both have political organizations of their own spending heavily in the midterms to help elect Democrats.
In an interview Monday with CNN, Steyer said the expense of campaigns and the death of the public-funding system for presidential campaigns have helped contribute to the new breed of candidate.
“Self-funding takes away one problem,” Steyer said. But he said campaigns fall flat if candidates don’t have a winning message.
“It doesn’t have matter how much money you have,” he said, “if you have nothing to say.”