Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Self-funded candidates find some success

By Rachel Wells

Historically, self-funded campaigns have not been successful in Illinois, but Tuesday’s ballot numbers show they’re not doomed to failure.

“There are real serious limits to self-funders, but obviously if you can get the right set of circumstances you can buy an election,” said political scientist Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

When polls closed Tuesday, vote totals slowly started pointing to relative success for three state-wide primary candidates.

Independently wealthy businessman and former party chairman Andy McKenna failed to obtain sufficient support to earn the Republican nomination for governor, but he didn’t fall too far behind Bloomington state Sen. Bill Brady and Hinsdale Sen. Kirk Dillard. Brady, Dillard and McKenna all garnered roughly 20 percent of the vote, but by Wednesday morning, party officials had discounted McKenna, several thousand votes behind but still not conceding, as a contender.

McKenna’s $5.6 million campaign relied heavily on self-funding, with $2.5 million coming from the candidate’s own pocket or from personal loans, according to the Sunshine Project database.

McKenna shows the limitation,” Redfield said. “You’ve got to have a certain amount of money, but you have got to have content as a candidate as well.”

McKenna was repeatedly blasted by other candidates for being a no-show at debates. “All he was was a TV ad. Nobody knew who he was as a person,” Redfield said.

A phone call placed to the McKenna campaign Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.

Garnering even better results than McKenna were two lieutenant governor candidates almost entirely reliant on self-funding.

For the Democrats, businessman Scott Lee Cohen beat out long-time state Rep. Art Turner. Republican businessman Jason Plummer edged out Sen. Matt Murphy, who -- like his unofficial running mate, McKenna -- has not yet conceded the race.

According to the Sunshine database, Cohen personally supplied 98 percent of his $1.9 million of available funds. Plummer and family provided 95 percent of his $1.1 million.

“They were in the perfect situation,” Redfield said of Plummer and Cohen. “No one cares or knows what the lieutenant governor does.” The fewer voters who care about an office, the more likely they are to vote simply by name recognition, Redfield said.

But Plummer’s campaign said its success was not bought, nor was the low profile of the position a factor, campaign spokesman John Pastuovich said.

“Clearly, financial resources are necessary to be successful, but you also have to have a message and a vision to motivate the electorate,” Pastuovich said. Plummer said he hopes to make the position relevant by using it as a bully pulpit. He also said he would not take a paycheck until the state’s unemployment rate returns to single digits.

“[Self-funding] was one way he could guarantee he would be able to maintain his independence,” Pastuovich said, adding that the finance strategy was planned. “I think voters saw self-funding as a good thing. … Jason Plummer more than anything else brings a new brand of leadership both to the Republican Party and to politics in general in Illinois. Jason Plummer was very committed to that in his campaign, and part of that commitment was exhibited through his commitment to self-fund.”

Cohen campaign manager Phil Molfese also touted the flexibility of self-funding. “It allows him not to be beholden to special interest groups. I think in this climate, with the unemployment rates so high and the problems we’ve had in Illinois with corruption, the public was looking for someone who’s not a career politician.”

Molfese said the idea of self-funders “buying an election” isn’t fair. “They point to [Cohen] pulling money out of his pocket, but look at [the other] guys, they’re getting money from all these different groups. … If someone is willing to put their personal money in to make a difference, I don’t see what’s wrong with that.”

Molfese argues that money alone cannot make a campaign successful.

“Money is a vehicle. It’s a vehicle to get the message out, and our message is what won the election. … You can spend all the money talking about the wrong thing. … That’s what a lot of guys have done in the past.”

He added that Cohen built support by holding career fairs and targeting the appropriate voters. He also started the group “Rod Must Resign” before former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached.

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