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Joanna Weiss

The biggest losers

Rich candidates find that their money can’t buy voters’ love

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / November 7, 2010

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ONCE THE ballots were tallied in Tuesday’s California governor’s race, the schadenfreude crowd started making calculations. Amount of personal money spent by Republican Meg Whitman: $142 million, a new American record.

Votes: 3.1 million.

Upshot: Nearly $50 per vote — a little less, if you count the primary. And in the end, she lost to Jerry Brown by 13 points.

For a billionaire like Whitman, who used to run eBay, that’s practically throwaway cash. But it still highlights one crowd-pleasing trend in this fall’s election cycle. Most of the “self-financed’’ candidates ultimately lost, including two other high-profile Republican businesswomen: former World Wrestling Entertainment Chief Linda McMahon, who spent $46.6 million to run for US Senate in Connecticut; and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who spent a relatively-piddling $5.5 million to run for US Senate in California.

By Wednesday, CNN, in its ongoing effort to fill dead air, was asking if voters aren’t ready for self-made women. Sigh. In fact, this was proof that gender has no bearing on a rich candidate’s prospects. Every cycle, wealthy businesspeople run for office, anointing themselves the saviors of the political system. And every cycle, most of them lose.

Chalk it up to ego and/or naiveté, says Jennifer Steen, a political science professor at Arizona State University. Political neophytes tend to be completely unprepared for the gauntlet of a high-profile race, she says. And wealth-equals-independence doesn’t fly as a campaign theme: If any voters actually care whether their candidates take PAC money, they’re offset by voters who chafe at the prospect of rich people buying elections.

In truth, we probably shouldn’t hate these wealthy candidates, just because they love themselves so much. Even middle-class politicians have egos; that’s what shields them from the compound indignities of a campaign. And if they’ve already bought their vacation homes and yachts, they might as well subsidize local TV news operations — not to mention a class of fat-cat political consultants.

But we shouldn’t be pleased about the advertising arms race that results. And we should expect some realism from wannabe public officials. We can’t put too much public trust into anyone who thinks success in business will automatically translate into success in a campaign — or in a legislative body, where the ability to cajole and compromise is more valuable than a history of acting like Attila the Hun.

The best way to prepare for a statewide run is always to start small, says Frank Donatelli, the chairman of GOPAC, which trains and supports Republican candidates. “But try telling many prominent CEOs that they should run for Congress or run for the state legislature,’’ he said. “You get a blank stare.’’

That’s why the parties often steer self-financed candidates into races where they aren’t favored to win, Steen says. That sounds suspiciously like a scam, but the candidates keep coming, wallets open.

Occasionally, they win — out of luck, Steen says, or because they bring particular skills to the table. John Edwards, who financed his first race for US Senate, was a trial lawyer who knew how to make human connections. Former athletes are often accustomed to dealing with the public and the press. Mitt Romney turned a failure in 1994 into a higher public profile and eventual success. Now, he gets to ask other people for money.

And sometimes, a rich candidate manages to buy — and follow — good advice. Republican Ron Johnson, one of this year’s few rich-guy success stories, spent $8.2 million of his own to defeat three-term Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. He spent it largely on political operatives, who crafted slick ads and limited his appearances to tightly-controlled events, says Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Of course, Johnson also ran in a state where you can announce that you won’t answer any questions about Iraq or Afghanistan, and the press accepts it. Maybe Meg Whitman is now wishing she had moved to Milwaukee. Or that she had run for a California Assembly seat from Encino, instead. It would have been a lot cheaper.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.