by Niv Sultan
Let’s say you flip a coin, and it lands heads up. You flip it again, and it’s heads a second time. You toss it once more — you’re feeling exceptionally lucky — and it’s heads for the third time in a row. The chances of that happening are 12.5 percent.
In the 2016 cycle, that was precisely the likelihood of winning a federal race with a self-funded campaign. (We’re including candidates who put at least $500,000 — be it through loans or contributions — into their runs.) That was down from 24 percent in 2012, the previous presidential cycle.
If it’s any consolation, this past election’s self-funders did better than their counterparts in 2004, when just one of 30 emerged with a seat in Congress.
Self-funders clearly face unfavorable odds — but why is that?
“The main reason is they tend to be extremely inexperienced in politics,” said Jennifer Steen, associate research professor of political science at Arizona State University. “Often, they don’t have compelling resumes, they don’t have compelling credentials.”
“Campaigning is something that you get better at with practice, and they don’t know how to do it,” she added.
Although Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) served as ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush, 2016’s six self-funded winners (five House members and a president) are indeed rather short on political experience: They’re all freshmen. In fact, from the 2000 cycle on, nearly 79 percent of self-funded winners have been freshmen. As we’ve written before, getting a foot in the door of Congress often requires putting one’s own cash in the pot and even taking on debt.
But freshmen haven’t been the only self-funded winners; exceptions have included second-term lawmakers, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in 2012, and individuals who returned to Congress after losing their seats, like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who won in 2008, lost in 2010 and then won again in 2012.
And while it’s unusual, even longtime incumbents occasionally invest their own money in their re-election bids. Take, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was first elected in 1984. In 2008 and 2014, he put $1.6 million and $1.8 million, respectively, into his campaigns. In both races, McConnell’s own money accounted for less than eight percent of his total cash raised — and, being one of the Senate’s wealthiest members, he could certainly afford it.
The context of McConnell’s races suggest, however, that McConnell didn’t self-fund solely because he could. In the months leading up to his 2014 contest, the race was considered to be an extremely tight one: The Cook Political Report called it a toss-up in mid-October of that year. And in October 2008, McConnell’s race shifted from “likely” Republican to “lean” Republican — closer to toss-up — where it stayed until McConnell’s victory.
Competitive races are only one reason for incumbents to self-fund, though. Some candidates have recognized the popular appeal of a seemingly unbeholden force on the Hill. Longtime Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) single-handedly funded almost the entirety of his 2000 and 2006 races. He spent nearly $11 million on those two contests, and raised less than $800,000 from other sources.
“His argument was that he couldn’t be bought,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel with the Campaign Legal Center and a native of Wisconsin, the state Kohl represented. “He was from a wealthy family, and he was self-funding his campaign; he was not subject to the same financial pressures or the same pressures from donors as other candidates might be.”
Does that sound familiar? How about President Donald Trump — the cycle’s top self-funder — who, when announcing his candidacy, said, “I don’t need anybody’s money.” (Kohl’s campaign slogan was “Nobody’s Senator But Yours.”) Trump gave his campaign about $66 million in loans and contributions — although some of that money found its way back to him.
“In Trump’s case, self-funding can also become self-profit,” wrote Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University, in an email. “Look at the expenses paid to the Trump organization for rent and plane and other staffing expenses.”
Ultimately, Trump’s $66 million in self-funding accounted for less than 20 percent of the money his campaign raised (and fell short of the $100 million he said he’d contribute), as he also received nearly $267 million from other individuals and organizations. That fact is key, as Trump’s self-funding was complemented by his populist appeal and media attention, which allowed him to circumvent one reason for the dismal success rate of self-funders: Such candidates mostly miss out on fundraising’s potential to facilitate base-building.
“It really does make a difference if you raise a dollar versus writing a check,” said Steen. “Getting people to give you whatever amount is asking them to support you. So if you raise money from 1,000 contributors, that’s 1,000 people who are interested in your campaign and vested in your success.”
According to Fischer: “Generally speaking, when a candidate is running for office they need to build a base of support, and that includes fundraising from, ideally, a broad range of people. And if you’re self-funding you don’t necessarily have to go through the difficult work of building that base of both popular and financial support. You can plow straight ahead and hire staff, pay for ads and open campaign offices.”
Some candidates have plowed straight ahead, multiple times, to limited success. James Oberweis (R-Ill.), a businessman and member of the Illinois Senate, has mounted three self-funded campaigns: In 2004, 2008 and 2014. Those efforts cost him a total of over $8 million, to little avail.
Connecticut Republican Linda McMahon, of wrestling fame, channeled even more of her own money into her bids. She ran for the Senate in 2010 and 2012, and the two races combined put her back nearly $100 million. That price tag was so high that both of her candidacies are among the five campaigns that featured the highest amounts of self-funding since 2000. While McMahon hasn’t become a senator, she does now lead the Small Business Administration under Trump.