In age of campaign mega-groups, solo spenders still compete

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Posted: Feb 09, 2015 11:48 AM
In age of campaign mega-groups, solo spenders still compete

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Christine Jones admits she didn't know how much running for office would cost.

An attorney and former executive for GoDaddy.com, Jones had been encouraged to run for years by friends. When the governor's seat in Arizona opened up, she wound up putting $5.4 million of her own money into the Republican primary only to place a distant third.

No one donated more to a state race in Arizona, not even the well-heeled Republican or Democratic committees.

"If you had asked me two years ago, are you willing to spend more than 5 million on this thing, I would say absolutely not," Jones said.

More than ever before, national political organizations dominated the financing of state-level races in 2014, especially the committees associated with the major parties and special interest groups, according to a new analysis from the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity.

But while the Republican Governors Association and its Democratic counterpart alone put $100 million into campaigns for state offices, the institutional money didn't completely eclipse dozens of people with serious wealth and a gambler's willingness to put it on the line. Self-financed candidates wound up among the top donors in races in at least 24 states, the numbers show.

"If you have cash and you always wanted to be an elected official, that's certainly not deterring people from doing that," Republican pollster Greg Strimple said.

The gilded group of self-financed candidates included both Democrats and Republicans and the odd independent; real contenders and huge longshots, political neophytes and those with experience, and a wide range of backgrounds: cattlemen, lawyers, construction company owners, Internet company executives and radio station owners.

The biggest self-funded player was Bruce Rauner, a Republican venture capitalist who gave close to $28 million to his campaign for governor of Illinois, the study and campaign finance reports filed with the state showed. Counting a postelection infusion, his overall investment probably surpassed $37 million.

Rauner won.

But there were far more losers. They included Arkansas construction company owner John Burkhalter, who gave $2 million seeking the part-time job of lieutenant governor, and A.J. Balukoff, who ran for governor as a Democrat in very Republican Idaho.

South Carolina attorney Tom Ervin, put up at least $3.8 million — and significantly more when postelection funding is counted — running as an independent for governor (No independent has ever won the seat). He withdrew from the race a week before the election.

Balukoff, a bow tie-wearing businessman and partner in the Idaho Steelheads hockey franchise, said he had no choice but to spend big.

"I wasn't known and I had to advertise early just to introduce myself to the people of Idaho," said Balukoff, who said he put up more than $3 million, an eye-popping amount in a small state. "I'd never run for a partisan office in my life."

Balukoff, 68, captured 39 percent of the vote in losing to Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

The campaign cash study was focused on donors to state races such as governor, and did not include the U.S. House or Senate. The data doesn't capture gifts to groups that don't have to report their donors. It may not show every contribution or loan repayment, given differing reporting deadlines. And it doesn't show all spending that affects a campaign, like if a group pays directly for a television ad on behalf of a candidate.

In the 2014 cycle, more than 130 state-level candidates pumped more than $100,000 of their personal money into races for governor, state Supreme Court justice or state lawmaker. Only about 30 percent were successful.

Self-financed candidates can be appealing to national political committees that are trying to spread resources in many spots around the country. Most don't lack for confidence, having been big successes in other arenas.

"What's good at making you a successful businessman doesn't make you a successful candidate. You're more used to dictating," said Democratic political consultant David Dunphy.

Richard Bernstein, a Democrat who contributed more than $1.8 million of his own money to become a Michigan state Supreme Court justice, said he needed to invest personal money just to compete with the groups helping the other side. He was the state's fifth biggest donor, right behind the United Auto Workers.

"All it did was make me relevant," said Bernstein, 41, a legally blind attorney who previously worked for his family's personal injury law firm and whose campaign slogan was "Blind Justice." ''These PACs (political action committees) are running the show."

Jones, 46, the unsuccessful candidate in Arizona, said she enjoyed the experience and would run for office again. Still, she said she learned a lesson.

"You get lots of people who encourage you to do it who say they'll raise a lot of money, who won't come through," she said.

But in hindsight, "At least I won something," Jones joked, referring to donating more to an Arizona state race than any other person or committee.

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Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix; Kimberlee Kruesi in Boise, Idaho; and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock contributed to this story.