Implications of Self-Financed Candidates


I’ll leave it to others to assess the impact of the Internet and bloggers on the Connecticut race; my sense has been (and still is) that absent the $4 million of his own money that Ned Lamont was able to put into his campaign, and the millions more he can potentially spend down the road, we’d be focusing more on other inumbents who lost yesterday instead of on Sen. Joe Lieberman.

In recent years, both parties have actively recruited well-heeled candidates, from Jon Corzine (who spent something like $60 million of his own money in pursuit of a New Jersey Senate seat) to Pete Coors (who, in his unsuccessful 2004 bid for the Senate, relied more on other people’s wallets than his own); it’s not exactly unprecedented for a candidate with deep pockets to get into a race (although it certainly is unusual for one to successfully challenge an incumbent in his own party).

Markos Moulitsas suggests, among many other things, that Lamont’s wealth means he can’t be bought by the usual Washington lobbyists and power brokers; Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics questions, in an uncharacteristically heated post, that notion, writing,

Since when did the left adopt the belief that wealth equals incorruptibility? The Senate is full of millionaires, but I thought Washington D.C. was engulfed by a culture of corruption?

Bevan is obviously right. Self-financing candidates, unless they want to permanently remain as such, end up needing to raise money like any other incumbent for their reelection efforts, and that means going hat in hand to those lobbyists and power brokers (who will be only too eager to contribute to someone with power in Washington). Absent fundamental reforms in campaign finance, today’s self-financing candidate is inviting lobbyists to his D.C. fundraisers.

Further, great wealth is no guarantee than an individual won’t use his office to advance his own considerable interests, which can be much broader and far more esoteric than those of the general public.

I’m reminded of two stories; the first was dug out by two enterprising reporters, John P. McAlpin and Clint Riley, about then-Sen. John Corzine of New Jersey:

U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine voted to give himself and a select set of fellow millionaire investors a lucrative tax break from their controversial takeover of a Japanese bank.

Corzine cast that vote in March 2004 as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was considering a complex tax treaty between the United States and its closest Pacific Rim ally. The vote was unanimous.

The treaty included a narrowly crafted clause that gave a tax break to an exclusive group who had invested in failing banks subsidized by the Japanese government. It saved Corzine and his partners millions of dollars in tax payments.

Corzine’s people claimed he had no idea that the provision–which affected investors in a scant four Japanese banks–had anything to do with him. I was and remain rather skeptical of that claim.

The second is slightly less well documented. Back in the summer of 2005, I appeared on Bloomberg News’ TV service with an attorney who specializes in campaign finance law to talk about 527 regulations. I don’t remember much about the segment; I do recall that as we left the company’s D.C. offices, he mentioned that he found the firm’s founder, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an especially appealing figure. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said that Bloomberg’s wealth–a portion of which he used to finance his campaigns for mayor–gave him the freedom to do what he thought was right without having to look over his shoulder worrying about what special interest contributors would think. In other words, it’s a lot easier to propose (and of course pass) a smoking ban if you don’t need to rely on contributions from tobacco companies (and restaraunt and bar owners, for that matter).

That may be true, and perhaps even some good policies can come of it, but still, I’m not sure though that maverick rich guys immune from political pressure necessarily gets us any closer to a (small “d”) democratic politics.