Can’t Buy Me Love
August 8, 2014
Here is the golden rule of politics: In most elections the candidate with greater financial backing wins. To determine who has greater financial backing, independent spending has to be considered in most contemporary campaigns.
Michigan’s just completed congressional primary elections included several examples where the ‘golden rule’ did not apply. Three of those instances involved candidates who were largely self-funded. That suggests a corollary to the golden rule: It helps if your campaign resources represent broad support from others, not just personal wealth.
The most remarkable case of the failure of money was the 4th District Republican primary. U.S. Rep. Dave Camp’s announcement shortly before the filing deadline that he was retiring from Congress set off a scramble for the nomination to succeed him in a safe Republican seat.
Paul Mitchell, a retired businessman residing in Saginaw County, ended up putting over $5 million of his personal wealth into his campaign, while he raised just over $12,000 from other persons. The self-styled politician ran a campaign that was 99.8% his own money. He hired top-shelf political consultants who were committed to getting him elected or, at least, getting a terrific payday in the effort.
Having the advantage of just writing checks instead of having to raise money allowed Mitchell to launch a television ad blitz across the three media markets in the district in May, and bolt to an early advantage in the polls over his main opponent, state Sen. John Moolenaar. But like Aesop’s tortoise, Moolenaar overtook Mitchell for a comfortable win of 10,000 votes: 52.3% to 36.3%.
Of course, Moolenaar was no slouch as a candidate. He raised $640,000 for his campaign committee, and he benefited from $480,000 of independent spending by the pop-up SuperPAC, Campaign for Jobs and Opportunity (top donors included the Republican Attorney Generals Association, $155,000, and Dow Corning Corporation, $100,000) and $204,000 by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. He had endorsements from Congressman Camp, Camp’s predecessor in the U.S. House – Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Michigan Farm Bureau and the NRA.
The 3rd District Republican primary featured a largely self-funded challenger, Grand Rapids businessman Brian Ellis, and a maverick incumbent, Rep. Justin Amash, whose fundraising profile is like no other. It also included interest group endorsements for the challenger that reflected a high degree of establishment frustration with the incumbent’s independent voting record.
Ellis raised a total of $1,734,000, of which $1 million (60%) was his own money. Amash raised $1,667,000, of which $1,561,000 (93.6%) was raised from individuals.
The extent of Amash’s fundraising from individuals – not interest groups – is best appreciated in contrast to his colleagues in the Michigan congressional delegation. The retiring members, Dave Camp (28.0%), John Dingell (25.2%) and Mike Rogers (35.7%) raised the minority of funds for their last campaigns from individuals. Only two other incumbents in the Michigan delegation have raised more than half their funds from persons this cycle: Tim Walberg (59.6%) and Kerry Bentivolio (63.7%).
It appears that Amash’s reliance on persons rather than PACs was part of the secret to his success in overcoming opposition from mainstream Republican interest groups, including the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, officers of Meijer, Inc. and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Independent spending in the 3rd District favored Amash. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent $197,000 on behalf of Ellis. The Club for Growth spent $511,000 and Freedom Works spent $12,000 on behalf of Amash.
Justin Amash won a comfortable 10,000 vote victory, 57.4% to 42.6%.
The 11th District Democratic primary featured the Democrats’ big self-funded campaign of the season. Physician Anil Kumar raised just over $1 million, of which $760,000 (75%) was his wealth. His closest competitor in the money race, former State Department analyst Bobby McKenzie, raised $375,000.
McKenzie edged out Kumar at the polls by 966 votes, 34.3% to 31.8%, in a competitive race where Nancy Skinner captured 26.5% of the vote.
The fourth self-funding spree was a winner. In the 11th District Republican primary, foreclosure attorney David Trott provided $2.4 of his campaign’s $3.4 million (70.1%), as he clobbered incumbent U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio by a two-to-one margin at the polls, 42,009 to 21,252.
Bentivolio raised just $679,000 and he did not benefit from much independent support. Freedom’s Defense Fund spent $46,000 on his behalf. In contrast, his 2012 primary win was boosted by $693,000 of independent spending by the Liberty for All SuperPAC.
Trott’s self-funded win against the “accidental congressman,” who won office after the political self-immolation of former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter in 2012, restores mainstream order to the Republican Party in the 11th District.
So, what’s it all mean? Money is great, but money and breadth of support is greater.