Self-Funders: Ever Hopeful, Despite the Odds


Every two years the same political phenomenon repeats itself, like a rerun of Groundhog’s Day. A new crop of congressional candidates with stars in their eyes – and money in their pockets – take aim at a coveted seat in the U.S. Congress by plugging their personal fortunes into the campaign.

If the past is any indication, come sunshine or clouds on Election Day, nearly all these self-funded candidates will lose.

The latest fillings with the Federal Election Commission show that so far this election cycle, 16 candidates have anted up $1 million or more of their personal fortunes. (You can find the list on Open Secrets.) Some 53 have given $250,000 or more.

Among the million-dollar spenders, only one is an incumbent – Democratic Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. When Kohl first sought his Senate seat in 1988, he turned his self-funded campaign into an asset, running on the slogan “He’s nobody’s man but yours.” Uniquely in Congress, he has continued to self-fund his senatorial campaigns even though he needn’t. Fundraising for incumbents may be an onerous task, but it’s hardly an impossible one.

Challengers, on the other hand, learn quickly that fundraising is far and away the most difficult hurdle in running for office. A seat in the House of Representatives now costs more than $1 million on average. Senate seats can cost many times that amount, depending on the size of state and the quality of the opposition.

Given those realities, newcomers routinely dig into their own pockets as a way of priming the pump and demonstrating to potential contributors that theirs is a serious effort. The need for such start-up money is so well understood that personal wealth is one of the biggest assets that party recruiters look for in potential candidates.

And certainly it helps – which is one big reason why so many members of Congress are millionaires. But as any incumbent can tell you, the real secret in winning office is not simply spending money, but spending other people’s money. If a campaign can’t attract financial supporters, it usually can’t attract voters either – as countless candidates have discovered to their chagrin on Election Day.

Aside from Kohl, only two incumbents have sunk significant cash into their own reelection campaigns: Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island ($336,000) and Congressman Chris Cannon of Utah ($138,000). Chaffee’s seat is seen as vulnerable and the race is listed as a toss-up. Cannon’s money helped him weather a serious challenge in the GOP primary. And in both those cases, most of the money is still coming from other people.

Certainly, sinking a million bucks into an election campaign is guaranteed to boost anybody’s name recognition. But winning a seat in Congress is another matter altogether. So just in case you’re one of those millionaire candidates with stars in your eyes, here’s a link you might want to look at before you plunk down any more cash: the Open Secrets page that shows how well self-funded candidates did in 2004.

Twenty-three candidates that year spent $1 million or more on congressional campaigns. Twenty-two of them lost.