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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Private Affluence, Public Squalor

Just the other day I was wondering if it was a sign of hard times that movies and television shows seem to be featuring obscenely wealthy people, even more than is usually the case. Similarly, it seems like there are an awful lot of people running for office this year who have personal money to burn, having clearly done very well financially even as their fellow-citizens suffered.
I still can’t prove my theory about movies and television, but according to a well-researched Jeanne Cummings article in Politico, this is indeed a very big year for self-funding candidates:

About 11 percent of the combined $657 million raised by all 2010 candidates has come in the way of self-financing — nearly double the 6 percent measured at the same juncture in the 2006 midterm, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.
Of the $134 million raised by all Republican House challengers as of June 30, a whopping 35 percent of the cash came from the candidates’ own bank accounts, the analysis found. Among Democrats, the percentage of self-made donations was just 18 percent.
If such spending stays on course, the Institute’s Executive Director Michael Malbin expects the GOP challengers’ field to eclipse the 38 percent self-financing high-water mark set by Democrats in 2002. “This is or is near a record,” he said.

Much of Cummings’ article focuses on the relatively low success rate of self-funded candidates in prior elections, and explores different reasons for that phenomenon, from lack of self-discipline to specific issues over how the candidate got rich to begin with. Several well-known candidates this year could have some of those issues:

Ohio businessman Jim Renacci, who is challenging freshman Democratic Rep. John Boccieri, for example, is expected to be attacked for going to court to avoid paying taxes on $13.7 million in income.
In the California Senate race, Republican Carly Fiorina, former head of Hewlett-Packard, is being criticized for laying off thousands of workers and taking a $42 million golden parachute.
[Florida Senate candidate Jeff] Greene is coming under fire for the way he made millions off the subprime mortgage meltdown. Those criticisms could be especially powerful in a state hit hard by foreclosures. And his relatively thin connections to Florida and prior celebrity lifestyle in Los Angeles — Mike Tyson was the best man at his wedding — are also expected to be used to paint him as an unsuitable senator for the Sunshine State.
And in Connecticut, [Senate candidate Linda] McMahon is trying to finesse using the wealth from her WWE enterprise while still distancing herself from the scandals — from steroids to sexual harassment — that have plagued the professional wrestling industry.

But as Cummings makes plain, rich candidates invariably claim they’ll be independent because they aren’t spending anybody else’s money, and a lot of voters buy it. It’s another good argument for public financing of campaigns, but until such time as that reform is enacted, there will be plenty of people who look in the mirror one fine morning, see a future governor, congressman, senator or president, and decide to share their resplendence with the rest of us.

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