In Florida politics, it’s the season of the deep-pocketed, self-funded candidate. People have watched in wonder as Jeff Greene and Rick Scott — two previous unknowns without any experience holding public office — have spent millions of their own money on TV, radio and print ads in pursuit of statewide office, and seen their name recognition and favorability ratings rocket as a result.
Lessons from a 1994 California Senate race may offer clues to how Kendrick Meek and Bill McCollum plan to defeat their mega-rich opponents.
Jeff Greene, who made more than $1 billion in the real-estate market and in complicated financial trades called credit default swaps, has never held public office before, and only moved to Florida full-time about two years ago. Nonetheless, after spending millions on numerous TV ads and glossy four-color mailings, he is running in what one poll records as a statistical tie with veteran U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Greene has spent more than Meek has raised so far.
Rick Scott, a multi-millionaire health-care entrepreneur and political neophyte who only moved to Naples about seven years ago, has spent an estimated $16 million on TV ads. According to the same poll he now leads Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary race to be the party’s gubernatorial candidate by 13 percentage points. Scott, too, is spending more than McCollum has likely raised so far.
The phenomenon has left political strategists throughout the state scratching their heads — wondering what candidates without unlimited funds can do to withstand financial juggernauts.
Self-financed candidates don’t have a strong record of winning. According to a new study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, those candidates who paid their own way won only about 11 percent of the time in the period studied, 2000-2009. The number was roughly the same for both parties.
Still, it can be a harrowing ride for a rich candidate’s opponents. Kam Kuwata knows it firsthand. The former campaign manager for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, says you have to be ready for a white-knuckle ride.
In the 1994 U.S. Senate race in California, Michael Huffington took the Republican primary by storm to face Feinstein, a one-term incumbent, in the general election. There are telling similarities to Florida’s races. Huffington was largely self-funded — he is the heir to the natural gas/energy company Huffco. Like Greene and Scott, he was a relative newcomer to California, moving there only a couple years earlier from Texas. And Huffington saw his ratings shoot up as he spent heavily on his campaign — an estimated $28 million.
“I remember it more clearly than a lot of races that came after it,” Kuwata recalls. “We had a huge lead, like 25 points, going into this.” But they knew to take Huffington seriously. They had seen him spend wildly to win a congressional seat in 1992, then go on to win the Republican Senate primary. “He started advertising during the Winter Olympics for a June primary,” Kuwata marvels. By the time Huffington won the primary, Feinstein’s 25-point lead had dwindled to a dead heat in the polls, Kuwata recalls. Throughout the rest of the summer and fall the polls seesawed.
“I was more than sweating,” Kuwata says. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was eating too much and drinking too much. So yes, it was a nerve-wracking effort.”
The strategy was simple. Start with “message discipline”: Have a simple, easily understood message, and repeat it over and over. (“Huffington, the Texas oil millionaire Californians can’t trust,” was the tag Kuwata used.) Then Kuwata made sure to identify swing voters. Finally, the campaign had to hold steady and wait till the timing was just right to unleash its paid media blitz.
In Feinstein’s case, Kuwata says, they clearly couldn’t match their opponent’s spending, so they spent the summer reaching out to “earned media” (journalists), trying to make sure they were informed about every questionable thing Huffington had ever done. Then about eight weeks before the election Kuwata unleashed the paid ads. That was the period in which he believed voters were starting to make up their minds and paying the most attention.
Feinstein won the election by less than 2 percentage points — 46.7 percent of the vote to 44.8 percent.
Meek’s challenge is that, unlike Feinstein, he doesn’t have much name recognition outside of his South Florida base of operations. Greene’s campaign is making significant inroads as a result. But Meek has not unleashed his paid media campaign yet. His camp is hoping for a surge when Meek starts appearing on TV.
McCollum, meanwhile, has been criticized for ignoring Scott, whose controversial past running a hosptial chain that pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud initially made him an implausible candidate. But Scott’s ads helped turn him into a recognizable figure throughout the state. (McCollum spokesperson Kristy Campbell contends they took Scott seriously right away.) The McCollum camp is also hoping for a surge when it starts its paid campaign.
“We had to really make every bullet count,” Kuwata says. “It was tough.”