National Journal, February 10, 2001
Like many people, I gasped when I read that Jon Corzine, a former investment banker who is reportedly worth almost $400 million on a good day, spent $60 million of his own money last year to win a U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey. I thought, at first, it was a misprint. Someone had misplaced a zero. But no. According to Federal Election Commission data, Corzine more than doubled the previous record for self-financing, which was set by Michael Huffington in his 1994 California Senate race. Huffington, a Republican, lost. Corzine, a Democrat, won.
Then I noticed that Corzine, though in a class by himself where deep pockets were concerned, was not by any means the whole story in 2000. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton spent almost $12 million of his own fortune to win a Senate seat. Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell spent nearly $10 million of her own fortune to win a Senate seat. Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl spent nearly $5 million of his own fortune to retain his Senate seat. Two other Democrats in 2000 spent more than $4 million of their own fortunes but lost (one for Senate, one for House). Hmm. Democrat, Democrat, Democrat, Democrat, Democrat, Democrat. Gimlet-eyed investigator that I am, I wondered: Could there be a pattern here?
Intrigued, I did a Web search and managed to track down a political scientist at Boston College named Jennifer A. Steen. She has made a specialty of self-financers, and her Web site (www2.bc.edu/~steenje/) not only contains a wealth of information but plays "Hey, Big Spender" through your computer (follow the links to "Self-Financers in 1999-2000 Elections"). She kindly provided me with data on self-financers for every House and Senate election from 1990-2000. I then crunched the data through my Ticonderoga No. 2 graphite supercomputer and discovered—yes!—a pattern.
There is, let it be said, nothing new about self-financers. (Can you say "Rockefeller"?) Nor is there anything wrong, particularly, with self-financing, which can reduce the influence of special-interest money and open the door to otherwise overmatched challengers.
Nor, for that matter, is it clear that having bottomless pockets is a big plus in politics. "Big money is not all it's cracked up to be when you self-finance," Steen told me when I called her up. Self-financers, she finds, usually lose. Too often, they are neophytes who believe they can win an election by just saturating the air with ads, with the result that they neglect to press the flesh, cultivate the activists, and get out the vote. "You have to have a ground campaign to support the air war," Steen said. On the other hand, she noted, bottomless pockets often frighten other candidates off the field, and so in that respect can be quite important.
All of that said, the number of big-money self-financers—meaning candidates for House or Senate who spent $1 million or more of their own money—rose significantly in the 1990s. In 1990, there were three such moneybags; in 1992, 10; in 1994 and every year thereafter, between 16 and 19. Possibly the increase was due in part to the deepening bite of contribution limits that make raising money like digging a railway tunnel with a teaspoon.
Because Republicans are, supposedly, the party of the rich, I had initially expected to find a Republican advantage in the deep-pockets category. Silly me. Things are actually more complicated, and more interesting.
To see why, divide big-money self-financers into two groups. The first spent anywhere from $1 million to just under $4 million of their own money on a House or Senate race. Call them Limousines. The second spent $4 million or more. Call them Learjets. The Learjets fly in truly rarefied air. In the six elections from 1990-2000, there were 64 Limousines but only 20 Learjets.
Which party dominates up there? Among Limousines, Republicans consistently outnumber Democrats by about 2-to-1, with no particular trend evident over time. Among Learjets, however, the story is exactly the other way around: Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-to-1. Odd. It's as if the deepest deep pockets are Democratic.
Moreover, the number of Democratic—but not Republican—Learjets has risen steadily. In 1992, a third of Learjets were Democrats; in 1994 and 1996, half were; in 1998, two-thirds; and in 2000, all.
All? Yes, all. Last year, as usual, Democrats made up about a third of Limousines, and so Republicans preserved their advantage in this category. In contrast, 2000 produced a total wipeout of Republicans in the plutocrat category. In the 1990s, Republicans always managed to field one or two Learjets, though never more than that. In 2000, they managed to field zero. Meanwhile, Democrats produced a record-shattering six.
The kicker is that four of the six won, even though only one was an incumbent. That is an enviable, even remarkable, success rate. By way of comparison, only one of seven Republican Limousines won in 2000. In the five congressional elections of the 1990s, fewer than one in three Republican Learjets won.
What, if anything, is going on? Is it a fluke or a trend? If I were a conscientious political scientist, I might say that one or two elections prove nothing. Steen notes that deep-pocket candidates greatly improve their odds if they have prior political experience. In 2000, the Democrats managed to find a number of zillionaires who fit this bill, but she sees few more in the pipeline. "It could be just a one-time thing," she says.
On the other hand, if I were an irresponsible, sensation-seeking journalist—which I am—I would say: Trend! Trend! Trend! After all, Democrats never fielded more than one Learjet per election from 1990-96. Then, in 1998, they fielded four, and in 2000, six.
Both parties insist they recruit the best possible candidates, "and not just someone with a heartbeat and a checkbook," as Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, puts it. Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, calls the ability to self-finance "a bonus, but it's certainly not a prerequisite."
Well, they would say that. On the other hand, in October The Wall Street Journal quoted Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, the DSCC chairman, as saying that he had scouted for self-funders in expensive states. "We knew from the outset it would be critical to have several candidates that do not need a subsidy from the national party," he told The Journal.
Of course, both parties would presumably be eyeing their candidates' pocketbooks. So what would explain the Democrats' recent Learjet advantage?
* It's the economy, stupid. "It's nice," says the DSCC's Gibbs, "to see that a few Democrats benefited from the strong Clinton economy." Gibbs was joshing, but he may have had a point. The high-tech boom created new fortunes 0disproportionately in places where latte is sipped by people who shun neckties and country clubs. Many of the new plutocrats of Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston, in contrast with their Industrial Age precursors, lean left or libertarian. Libertarian plutocrats, of course, don't often run for office. Thus, perhaps, the sudden surge of Learjet Democrats.
* It's the trial lawyers, stupid. The 1990s rained money on trial lawyers, who are politically joined at the hip to the Democratic Party. Not surprisingly, their money is finding its way into politics, virtually all on the Democratic side. Two of the six Learjet Democrats in 2000—the two who lost, as it happens—were trial lawyers. Two out of six cannot be the whole story, of course. But plainly, they are a part of the story. Even two Learjets, after all, are a lot: Neither party fielded more than that number until 1998.
* Natural selection. Politics is an ecosystem in which the parties are fiercely competitive and, normally, closely balanced. Once in a while, however, one party discovers an advantage and rushes to exploit it. For a Republican plutocrat such as Steve Forbes, his money, like his real name (Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., ahem), may be something of an embarrassment. Learjet conservatives who want to abolish the estate tax or freeze the minimum wage look like self-servers. Learjet liberals inoculate themselves by being traitors to their class. "You look at these guys, and it's clear they're not advocating things that are in their obvious self-interest," says Gibbs of the Democratic senatorial committee. "It's sort of that refreshing millionaire populist." That would help explain the Learjets' markedly liberal cast.
And so, perhaps, the economy is hatching Learjet liberals at a time when a unique political niche awaits them. Not surprisingly, they are rushing to populate it. If politics is like nature, their numbers will rise until predators—Republicans—learn how to pick them off. Or until the environment—the electorate—turns inhospitable.