The Golden Rule: In politics, gold rules

Self-financing alone doesn’t win, but deep pockets can give you an edge

During his statewide tour announcing his bid for governor, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam was frequently asked if he would self-finance his campaign. It’s a natural question to ask in Tennessee politics. I think the last person to win a statewide race in Tennessee who wasn’t worth a million dollars was Ray Blanton -- 30 years ago. Haslam makes the point that you don’t win by just writing a check, you have to have broad support and a broad fund-raising base.

True. But not the whole story.

Having personal wealth gives you instant credibility in some quarters. If you are an obvious buffoon, it won’t help. But if you have a track record of public service and seem reasonably intelligent, you have a leg up on your opponents. Bill Gibbons has been in local government in Memphis and most recently been the District Attorney General. But coming out of the gate, who’s given the better odds of winning the governor’s race, Gibbons or Haslam?

Wealthy candidates also have wealthy friends. Those wealthy friends have wealthy friends. You don’t have to beat the bushes to find money, you invite the neighbors over for drinks and they give you checks. When Bob Corker decided to run for the Senate, he held a series of fund-raisers and over a period of three months raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary were never going to catch up. Expect Haslam to do the same.

When I worked in the Hilleary for Governor campaign, we would get calls from reporters about prominent Nashville Republicans names showing up on the contribution list for Phil Bredesen. OK. You live in Belle Meade, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. The people down the street are having a party/fund-raiser for Bredesen and they send you an invitation. Do you go? Perhaps the spouse wants to see the inside of the mansion. People at the party will be your clients or people with whom you do business. Or, more importantly, people with whom you hope to do business. The price of admission is a check for $250 or $500. So there’s your name as a Democratic contributor. What role does political philosophy play in such decisions? None. It’s about the neighborhood and your circle of friends. And getting invited to the damn party.

In a campaign, all money is good. But early money gets you a head start and having parties is quicker and easier than compiling mailing lists, sending out begging letters and collecting the money in dribs and drabs. Having cash in the bank allows you to plan your television buys and budget campaign expenses. It’s hard to budget and make television buys when you have to check the mail every day to see if you can pay the bills.

When Fred Thompson announced he would not run for re-election, Lamar Alexander wrote his own campaign a check for $100,000 and started running radio ads while his fund-raising team cranked up. Ed Bryant never caught up.

While early money is good, it is the late money that is crucial and where the wealthy have the greatest advantage. The last month of a statewide campaign, if your fund-raising team has done its job, you have maxed out your big donor list and there isn’t time to do any more mail outs. But you need money for the final push.

Bredesen outspent Hilleary throughout the campaign, but Hilleary was competitive enough to keep it close. The last few weeks of the campaign, Bredesen wrote his campaign a check for $3 million and then carpet-bombed Hilleary on every television station in the state. He won by 50,000 votes.

Corker raised a lot of money early and got a lot of contributions. But he poured in $2.8 million of his own money by the end of the campaign—almost 20 percent of his total spent.

People who only self-finance do tend to lose -- like Ned Lamont, the dilettante who ran against Joe Lieberman. But if you do fund-raising right and have a broad base of support it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to write that check the last week of the campaign.

And the Haslam checkbook will come in mighty handy.

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Comments » 1

BayardDonahoo writes:

From what I've seen of politics, what you write in this article is absolutely true. The advantage of the rich (and powerful) cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed and should be. The viability of democracy depends on it. This is one of the very real problems of freedom.

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