Wealthy candidates pay their own way, but it’s not an easy path to victory

Second quarter filings show that dozens of federal candidates are digging deep into their own pockets.

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SOURCECenter for Responsive Politics

Hedge fund manager and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer made waves when he entered the crowded Democratic presidential field, vowing to spend $100 million of his own money on his campaign.

But Steyer is far from the only candidate relying on personal wealth to fuel a political campaign. Second quarter filings show that dozens of federal candidates are digging deep into their own pockets, with some spending hundreds of thousands of dollars many months before the first 2020 primaries.

Self-funded candidates have had mixed track records. Political scientist Jennifer Steen look at success rates of self-funders in congressional races in her 2006 book, “Self-Financed Candidates in Congressional Elections.” She found that, on average, candidates’ odds of winning actually decreased as they spent more on their campaigns, even among candidates who had political experience.

A prominent counterexample, of course, is President Donald Trump, who gave $66 million to his 2016 campaign, though he also raised an additional $130 million from individual donors.

But in 2018, 41 candidates ultimately self-funded to the tune of at least $1 million. Only nine of them won.

Many of the candidates who rely on self-funding are, like Trump, wealthy political outsiders. For them, personal money is a useful buoy until donors begin to take their campaign seriously. Candidates who self-fund typically list their personal contributions as loans to their campaign, though many never raise enough from donors to pay themselves back. Given their poor electoral chances, self-funders also run the risk of losing big in more ways than one.

Former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) self-funded his way to Congress, spending $2.3 million of his own money to easily knock off Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) in 2012. Delaney was reelected in 2014 and 2016, spending a combined $1.3 million of his own money over those two election cycles.

But Delaney’s efforts to self-fund his presidential campaign have hardly achieved the same success so far. The former congressman has put $15.1 million into his campaign while raising only $2 million from individual supporters since he announced his candidacy two years ago.

Delaney is unlikely to be the only self-funded candidate to run into trouble during the 2020 cycle.

Sixty-three House candidates have each chipped in at least $10,000 for their own campaigns during the first half of 2019, cumulatively giving more than $7 million in just six months, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission.

Twenty-one of those candidates gave their campaigns at least $100,000. For five House candidates, their own contributions account for at least 95 percent of their total fundraising.

The big spenders include three Republicans — state Sen. Renee Unterman, Dr. Richard McCormick and former Home Depot executive Lynne Homrich — who are all competing in a primary to replace Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) in the state’s 7th Congressional District. Woodall, who narrowly beat Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by 0.2 points in 2018 in a district the Cook Partisan Voting Index classifies as R+9, announced in February that he would not pursue another term. Bourdeaux plans to run again in 2020.

Several other self-funded candidates are Republicans aiming to challenge Democrats who narrowly won in swing districts in 2018. In Georgia’s 6th District, where Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) edged out incumbent Rep. Karen Handel by 1 point last November, businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has pumped $500,000 into her own campaign and will likely face  Handel in the Republican primary.

In Illinois’ 14th District, state Sen. Jim Oberweis is challenging Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), who knocked off incumbent Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) by 5 points last year. Oberweis has given $200,000 to his own campaign so far. He previously spent $1.6 million of his own money in 2014 in an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Dick Durbin.

Four House incumbents are also among the candidates spending more than $100,000 of their own money: Reps. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), David Trone (D-Md.), William Timmons (R-S.C.) and Kenny Marchant (R-Texas). Of the four, Marchant is considered the most vulnerable after winning reelection by only 3 points in 2018 despite outraising his Democratic opponent by a factor of 10. This cycle marks the first time Marchant has loaned his own campaign money since 2004, when he first ran for his seat.

Other notable self-funders include Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop, who is running in the special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District which will take place Sept. 10. Bishop has loaned $250,000 to his campaign, though he has also raised more than $900,000 from supporters.

In Senate races, 21 candidates have already spent at least $10,000 of their own money on their campaigns.

Three candidates for Senate loaned at least $1 million on their own campaigns. Nashville surgeon Manny Sethi is looking to take the seat currently held by retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan is mounting a primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), while former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville is one of half a dozen Republicans battling to take on vulnerable incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) next year.

Also in the Alabama Senate race is televangelist Stanley Adair, who has put more than $130,000 into his campaign.

Two candidates in North Carolina are pouring cash into their campaigns. Republican businessman Garland Tucker, who is posing a challenge to incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) from the right, has loaned $849,643 to his own campaign. Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, a Democrat, has self-funded to the tune of $200,000 so far. Tucker has raised an additional $190,000 from supporters, while Cunningham has raised $521,000.

With dozens of candidates choosing to self-fund — including several who are running against one another — not all are going to win. But if early data is any indication, many will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying.

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