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Self-funders burn through hundreds of dollars per vote

By Aaron Blake

Former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon (R) spent $454 of her own money on each vote she got in her Connecticut primary win last month, making her campaign the most expensive per-vote in the country during a primary season rife with self-funders.

Self-funders are now running in top governor and Senate race in Connecticut, California, Wisconsin, Florida and New York. What that means is lots of personal money spent, and especially in the primary season, that money was spent on a pretty small pool of voters.

According to numbers crunched by The Fix (and available in a handy, sortable chart here), McMahon led all self-funders by spending $27 million of her own money on less than 60,000 votes in the sparsely attended Nutmeg State GOP primary on Aug. 10.

President Obama took a swipe at McMahon's nearly unprecedented self-funding at a fundraiser for her opponent, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, on Thursday in Connecticut. Obama accused McMahon of entering the race and trying "to get a victory by writing a big check and flooding the airwaves with negative ads."

"Dick, she has more money than you," Obama joked. "Just in case there's any confusion."

But McMahon isn't alone in trying to spend her way into office. Two dozen House, Senate and governor candidate have shelled out at least $1 million of their own money on a primary, though just seven of them have won their parties' nominations so far. More often, it winds up being an expensive exercise for a political newcomer who finds the campaign to be one of the worst investments of his or her life.

McMahon's investment actually looks like a pretty good one when compared to some other wealthy would-be politicians who lost.

Businessman Bill Binnie (R) gave her a run for her money - so to speak - on Tuesday, coming in at more than $300 per vote for his third-place finish in the New Hampshire Senate primary. Binnie spent more than $6 million on less than 20,000 votes in an expensive-but-small state.

In Rep. Tom Perriello's (D-Va.) district, businessman Laurence Verga (R) spent $228,000 of his money and won just 802 votes - about 2 percent of the total - in a crowded field. That's $284 per vote.

Similarly, Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn (R) spent $3.5 million on his campaign in Tennessee's open 8th district race, taking just 17,309 votes and finishing in third place. In the end, it cost him $202 per vote.

The race to face Rep. Tim Bishop (D) was particularly expensive. Former President Richard Nixon's grandson, Chris Cox (R), spent $1.1 million on just 5,635 votes, finishing third and spending $195 per vote. The winner of that primary, fellow self-funder Randy Altschuler, spent slightly less per-vote ($191) but spent more total and won the race going away.

In another crowded field in Senate candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek's (D-Fla.) district, physician Rudy Moise spent nearly $1.4 million and took just 7,769 votes - about $176 per vote.

The biggest self-funders, of course, come from the biggest states. Two candidates in California and two candidates in Florida each spent about the same per-vote, but got very different results.

Both former health care executive Rick Scott and businessman Jeff Greene spent $84 per vote in their statewide primary campaigns in Florida. Scott spent $50 million and won the GOP governor's primary, while Greene spent $23.7 million and lost to Meek badly.

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner spent similar amounts per-vote in the California GOP Senate primary. But Whitman spent much more total ($71 million) and won the race going away at a relatively thrifty $64 per vote.

For comparison's sake, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) spent $174 per vote (about $102 million total) on his 2009 reelection campaign. The record, according to self-funding expert Jennifer Steen at Arizona State University, is about $900 per vote. That was accomplished (?) by Massachusetts businessman Chris Gabrieli (D) when he finished sixth in a crowded House primary in 1998.

By Aaron Blake  | September 17, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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