Thursday, March 26, 2009

Q: How are Congressional seats like yachts?

A: If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.

Congressional Quarterly notes another consequence of the tanking economy: the likelihood that big-ticket donors won't be as easy to find in 2010 as they have been in recent cycles. That could mean an increase in candidates who don't have to go begging:

Republican political consultant Tim Clark has some advice for national campaign strategists: recruit self-funders.

Clark, vice president of JohnsonClark Associates in Sacramento, suggested in a recent interview that if he worked for either party’s national House campaign organization this cycle, he would actively seek out candidates who possess the means to finance their own campaigns.

“Because of the difficult economy and the difficulty that everyone is seeing raising money . . . I think that’s made self-funded candidates all the more important to find,” Clark said. “They come with their own bank account.”

In the previous election cycle, at least 18 House and eight Senate candidates loaned their campaigns more than $1 million in personal funds, according to CQ Moneyline.

Another 60 candidates loaned their campaigns $350,000 or more. In addition, numerous self-funding candidates identified their personal funds as contributions instead of loans to be repaid.

Just what America needs: turning the Congress from a figurative "Millionaire's Club" to a literal one. How close are we to that already? Here's one indicator, from last week:

New York Republican congressional candidate Jim Tedisco declared in a televised debate last night that he is not a millionaire.

"I've lived, I've worked, I've represented upstate New York as a leader for many years," Tedisco said. "I'm not a millionaire, and I'm never gonna be a millionaire. When I get to the floor of Washington, I'll probably be the poorest person there in Congress."

But according to personal financial disclosure forms (PDF), Tedisco isn't exactly a working-class stiff. The sum of the minimum value of the assets Tedisco reported -- including two addresses in Saratoga Springs -- totals at least $1,426,000. The maximum value is over $3 million.

So we've arrived at a point where millionaire congressmen are reaching for the "poor me" card just because they're barely millioniaires. How the other members must snicker behind their backs in the lunchroom.

There is one bit of offsetting news, though: Self-funded candidates have a pretty poor track record.

According to her past research, a majority of self-funded candidates overall lose their elections.

"Most of them are politically inexperienced,” Steen said. “They can run on promises, but they don’t have any credentials to point to." She also said self-funders may hire expensive consultants, but their lack of political knowledge means they may not have the tools to evaluate the advice they’re given.

Brian Smoot, partner at Democratic consulting firm 4C Partners LLC and former political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, acknowledged that self-funders don’t have a strong electoral record, but said they still hold advantages for the party committees.

"It’s hard to resist sometimes — a good self-funder — because in scarce resources, if they’ve got the ability to fund their own campaign, it just provides more resources for other campaigns," Smoot said.

But don't take CQ's word for it; just ask unsuccessful self-funder Mike Erickson:

[A]nother 2008 self-funder, Republican Mike Erickson of Oregon, is actively considering a 2010 campaign.

Erickson, president of a transportation consulting firm, spent a total of $3.7 million on two unsuccessful campaigns for Oregon’s 5th district-, in 2006 and in 2008.

He contends that the economy will not play into his decision regarding a 2010 campaign, but speculated that it may be a factor for other self-funders.

"A lot of people have to think twice about spending money — personal money — in an election," Erickson said. "Do they have the resources to really commit to a tough, competitive congressional race? Now it’s probably a little tougher decision for some."

(Come to think of it, Erickson isn't Oregon's only unsuccessful self-funding Republican of late, is he?)

This is one more ugly side effect of the "two Americas" economy the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have left us: More and more, a congressional seat is becoming a luxury purchase item for the wealthy, not an opportunity for competent, experienced candidates.

The article is about Congress, of course, not the White House, but it's somewhat striking that CQ didn't mention the one significant counter-trend: Obama's success in tapping unprecedented numbers of small-dollar contributors. Nor did it mention public financing. Those are the only two currently available alternatives to the rise of the self-funded (and not necessarily competent) candidates.

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