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Trump's success with largely self-funded campaign defies usual pattern

| Friday, July 22, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
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Donald Trump speaks at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, U.S. March 10, 2016.
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U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. July 19, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker

HARRISBURG — Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman bid $144 million for an office and lost.

Whitman's self-financed 2010 race against Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif., earned her the top spot on an OpenSecrets.org list of wealthy Americans who've dumped their own cash into political campaigns.

Leaping onto that list is entertainer and billionaire Donald Trump, who paid for much of the campaign that won him the GOP nomination for president Thursday. Trump has given or loaned his campaign $49.9 million, according to campaign finance figures released Thursday.

“Money is power” in politics, especially at the outset of a campaign, said Shirley Ann Warshaw, presidential scholar at Gettysburg College.

But Trump “spent less money” overall than other key contenders, Warshaw said. He had name recognition from his TV show, “The Apprentice,” and the Trump brand, from businesses such as the Trump Tower and the Trump Taj Mahal casino. He was also the recipient of considerable free media on news shows, Warshaw said. GOP contender Ted Cruz raised more than the Trump campaign through May, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Trump is at a fundraising disadvantage against the Clintons' fundraising machine. Hillary Clinton, slated to receive the Democratic nomination next week in Philadelphia, has raised $274.5 million overall compared to Trump's $91.2 million, records show.

Paying for most or all of one's political campaign has produced mixed results for state and federal candidates, experts say.

“They rarely win,” Warshaw said of self-financed presidential candidates. “But that may not be fair because there have been so few of them.” The term self-financed can be misleading, she says, since wealthy candidates fund their campaigns to varying degrees.

The trend of self-financing in the modern era began with businessman Ross Perot's failed presidential bid in 1992 followed by billionaire Steve Forbes' unsuccessful effort in 1996, Warshaw said. Perot spent $64 million of his fortune in that race. Forbes doled out $37 million.

“Some self-financers swamp their opponents financially, but they do not always or usually bury their opponents at the ballot box,” Jennifer Steen, a professor at Arizona State University wrote in her book “Self-Financed Candidates in Congressional Elections.” “Self-financing does give some candidates an edge, but its average effect is quite small.”

Wealthy people subsidizing their campaigns tend to be successful business leaders. It's a plus that often resonates with voters.

“It always sounds good to say, ‘Nobody owns me,' ” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, helped pay for his 1988 Senate campaign and used the slogan, “Nobody's senator but yours.” He served in the Senate from 1989 to 2013.

“A lot of self-funded candidates are first-time candidates ... with no political experience” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a political newsletter at the University of Virginia.

Moreover, “If you are head of a corporation, you are pretty much used to doing what you want,” said Richard Skinner, an analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington. And that may not transfer well to government or campaigns, analysts said.

If candidates are former CEOs, they are “less likely to take guidance” from staff colleagues and lobbyists, said Gerald Shuster, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.

A review of self-funded candidates in federal elections since 1990 by the Washington Times found only 42 of 1,752 candidates were elected.

Pennsylvanians have seen self-funded candidates up close on their TV screens.

Democrat Tom Wolf, a York County businessman, spent $10 million of his own money in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. With an early TV ad, he surged ahead in the polls to a commanding lead he never lost. Wolf's first ad was biographical and emphasized he would be a “different kind of governor.”

Wolf won a four-person primary and ousted Republican incumbent Tom Corbett in November 2014. Wolf raised more than $30 million overall and most of the general election money came from donors.

Wolf wasn't a political novice, although he never held elected office. He was secretary of Revenue under former Gov. Ed Rendell. His “unwillingness to compromise” his first year and perhaps lack of hands-on experience dealing with lawmakers produced mediocre results, Shuster said. A nine-month budget impasse did not yield the income and sales tax hikes Wolf sought. Wolf aides cited the sizeable Republican majorities he faced in the House and Senate.

As for suggestions that former CEOs give orders and don't take advice, Mary Isenhour, Wolf's chief of staff and a former key campaign adviser, said Wolf listens to those around him “more so than any elected official I've ever worked for.”

The late Tom Smith, a Republican coal executive from Armstrong County, spent $16 million of his money but lost the 2012 U.S. Senate race to a gold-brand name in Pennsylvania politics: Democrat Bob Casey, whose father served as governor and auditor general.

The reasons some self-funded candidates lose despite fundraising advantages range from inexperience to the political climate in which they are running. Whitman's loss is largely explainable “because she was a Republican running in California,” where Democrats hold a large numeric advantage, Skinner said.

Some voters have an impression that candidates who spend millions of their own on campaigns “seem like they are coming from a different world,” said Borick, a pollster.

“Raising money isn't just about getting a donation,” Kondik said. “It's about getting high-level people to support someone's ideas. It's about getting segments of the public to literally buy into your campaign.”

But, “You have to have skin in the game,” said Ali Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University.

Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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