SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — In the midst of one of the worst recessions in decades, a host of former corporate leaders are spending millions in their quest for elective office, using their personal wealth to push past the political machinery and their own lack of experience.
In California, billionaire former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman has bankrolled more than $91 million of the nearly $100 million her Republican quest for governor has cost so far. Her outsized spending has bought her some of the nation’s best-known GOP strategists and chartered planes offering “white glove service.” It’s also helped her target traditionally Democratic voters.
In Connecticut, footage of stage explosions and wrestlers flying through the air has filled the TV airwaves in ads for former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, who has said she’s willing to spend up to $50 million of her own money in her bid to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.
Two former corporate chiefs — one a Republican and one a Democrat — quickly took leads from establishment candidates in Florida despite jumping in late in high-profile races.
Rick Scott, a former health care CEO, is leading in GOP gubernatorial primary polls after spending more than $25 million of his own money for a string of TV ads touting himself as a job creator.
Billionaire Jeff Greene, a Democrat, filed to run for Senate on the final day to qualify. So far he has spent more than $6 million of his fortune, mostly on TV ads attacking his opponent in the primary, four-term Rep. Kendrick Meek, as a career politician.
In Michigan, Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist and former president of computer maker Gateway Inc., spent $6 million, much of it on TV ads touting himself as “one tough nerd,” to win the Republican nomination for governor last week over the state’s attorney general and a veteran congressman.
The candidates’ ability to shun traditional political infrastructure and donor bases is a common theme for this year’s crop of political neophytes. They spend freely to promote themselves as outsiders who aren’t beholden to special interests.
But while their bank accounts free them from the arduous task of dialing for dollars, voters are often skeptical of self-made political newcomers, said Darry Sragow, who managed Democrat Al Checchi’s unsuccessful primary campaign for California governor in 1998. The Northwest Airlines mogul spent $39 million of his own money on the race.
“You need to overcome the presumption that you made a lot of money in business, you’re bored, you have a big ego and now you have to find something else to keep you busy,” Sragow said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg holds the U.S. record for self-financing, spending $108 million, or about $185 per vote, to win a third term last year. He did not take donations.
The candidates’ wealth can also be a liability, particularly it they have ties to the corporate boardroom at a time when recession-weary voters are angry over bank bailouts and soaring CEO salaries.
Greene, the Florida Senate candidate, has been hammered by an opponent who says he profited from others’ misery by investing in speculative housing ventures that catapulted him to billionaire status when the housing bubble burst.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, Scott’s GOP Senate primary opponent, constantly reminds voters that Scott headed a for-profit hospital chain, Columbia/HCA, when it paid $1.7 billion to settle claims of Medicare fraud. He left the company with a severance package worth millions in cash and stock.
In California, Whitman’s millionaire primary rival attacked her for her ties to Goldman Sachs, which paid her $475,000 to serve on its board. She left in 2002 when questions were raised about whether Goldman gave her preferential access to stocks in a practice that is now banned.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who lent her campaign $5.5 million to win the GOP primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in California, was fired from HP in 2005 and walked away with a $21 million severance package, even as the company’s stock price plummeted. Her opponents have used her corporate record against her.
But money allows candidates to try innovative tactics others can’t afford.
In New Hampshire, Senate candidate Jim Bender used some of his $1.5 million in personal campaign spending to sponsor a concert with an “American Idol” contestant to attract attention to his lagging Republican primary campaign. His opponent, Bill Binnie, also has given his campaign $3.5 million of his estimated $400 million fortune, flooding the airwaves in his race against former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte.
Whitman, whose wealth was estimated at $1.3 billion by Forbes magazine last year, used in-depth microtargeting of voters in her primary race. Recently she responded to attacks from California’s powerful nurses union by buying a list of registered nurses and sending mailers to some calling out their own union leaders.
During her primary race, Fiorina spent some of her campaign cash on a bizarre series of online ads featuring “demon sheep” and a DVD movie in which Boxer morphed into a blimp over Washington, D.C.
While it might be a stretch for millionaires and billionaires to call themselves outsiders, many are clearly trying to ride what they hope will be voter discontent with politicians.
On election night in the California primary, Whitman immediately linked her candidacy to that of Fiorina, although she had rarely before mentioned their shared history working on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“Career politicians in Sacramento and Washington be warned: You now face your worst nightmare — two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done,” she said.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Washington, Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla., and Susan Haigh in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling to Bender)