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Money can't buy wins in Senate races

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The latest example is Jeff Flake, who beat back a challenge by deep-pocketed Wil Cardon. (AP) The latest example is Jeff Flake, who beat back a challenge by deep-pocketed Wil Cardon. (AP)

By David Catanese
For POLITICO.com

For all of the carping about the outsize impact of spending on elections, a pack of Republican Senate nominees this year has proven that money isn't everything.

In six of the most hotly contested GOP primary contests this cycle, the best-funded candidate lost.

The latest example came Tuesday night when Rep. Jeff Flake beat back a challenge by deep-pocketed real estate mogul Wil Cardon, who dumped $8 million of his personal fortune into his campaign. The upstart Cardon outspent Flake 2-to-1 on the air but still lost by a staggering 48 points.

"It's the exception to the rule. Ninety-five percent of the time, the candidate who spends the most wins," said Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political spending in the Badger State.

But not in this year's Senate primary field.

There isn't one direct explanation for the trend. Some of the thrifty winners benefited from a splintered field, ducking below a crossfire of negativity. Others were buoyed by the resilient anti-establishment and grassroots movement that continues to build on its 2010 success. But the takeaway is unmistakable: Of course money still matters, but you can't take it to the bank.

"There is a point in high-profile races where there is a diminishing return on advertising dollars, especially in the waning days," said Texas GOP consultant Ray Sullivan, the chief spokesman for Rick Perry's presidential bid.

Take Wisconsin, where Tommy Thompson emerged from a fractured four-way field to win.

The former four-term governor spent $2.7 million to clinch the nomination, but that was easily dwarfed by the more than $5 million of personal money investor Eric Hovde put into the race.

Even accounting for the $1.6 million of outside spending that battered Hovde, Thompson — once the most prolific fundraiser in Wisconsin history — was outgunned.

Former Rep. Mark Neumann — the biggest beneficiary of outside spending by endorsers like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund — finished a distant third.

"It's odd to think Tommy Thompson could run statewide and get outspent," said McCabe, who recalled the 1998 gubernatorial contest where Thompson's war chest ended up being seven times bigger than his Democratic opponent. "But Thompson could afford it, because there's a familiarity with voters that didn't exist for Hovde."

Earlier this month in Missouri, another largely unknown self-funder learned that money can buy a ticket to the prom, but won't guarantee a dance.

Despite dumping $6.9 million into the campaign to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill, manufacturing CEO John Brunner was upended by Rep. Todd Akin and finished just a percentage point ahead of third place candidate Sarah Steelman.

Without a doubt, Brunner's investment yielded him a return. This time last year, the first time candidate registered just 3 percent in the polls.

But much like Hovde, Brunner's largesse placed a fat target on his back. In the closing weeks, he took the greatest amount of incoming fire on the airwaves from Democrats and a Super PAC supporting Steelman.

Brunner outspent Akin 3-to-1, even including the outside spending against the St. Louis-area businessman. But Akin won by 6 points.

"Our early advertising was essential in introducing John to voters," said Brunner's campaign manager, Jon Seaton. "What we saw was a very late-breaking electorate. Those [late ads] all hit at just the right time to move the volatile electorate. Undecideds broke the other way."

There's no more illuminating example of the limits of the dollar than the Texas Senate race. It was the most expensive non-presidential campaign of the cycle, with 17 independent entities spending money to influence the outcome, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst plunked down $25 million of his own fortune in an attempt to secure a nomination that appeared destined to be his.ƒ

But his failure to extinguish tea party star Ted Cruz during the first round vote in May proved fateful: It gave Cruz a second wind, allowing him to raise enough to mount a viable bid and make a campaign issue of Dewhurst's unchecked spending.

Cruz had a slight edge in terms of outside groups' spending, but was still outgunned by more than $15 million.

In the end, it didn't matter. Cruz went on to crush Dewhurst by 14 points.

No Senate contender won a primary with less dough than Nebraska's Deb Fischer, the state senator who marshaled just half-million dollars in her bid against two better-funded statewide officials.

The most memorable ad of the race was an eleventh-hour flight by Joe Ricketts' Ending Spending Fund, which eviscerated front-running Attorney General Jon Bruning as an untrustworthy political chameleon.

The spot certainly aided Fischer's come-from-behind win, but the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund spent far more money on behalf of state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who ended up in third.

The Club achieved better bang for their buck in Indiana, outspending Richard Mourdock's own campaign in their zeal to end the 36-year career of Sen. Dick Lugar.

Even with $2 million support from the Club, Lugar and his supporters still outspent the state Treasurer by more than 2-to-1.

But this was a race where the national narrative of an out-of-touch veteran incumbent took on a life of its own, producing an emphatic 20-point rout for Mourdock.

"The higher up on the ballot, the more difficult it is to rely on money alone," said Sullivan. "It's when you get further down ballot to races that don't draw attention and media scrutiny where money matters more."

Granted, there are still plenty of examples of races where money reigned supreme. In Utah, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist's insurgent challenge to Sen. Orrin Hatch had trouble getting off the ground because of poor fundraising. Hatch outspent Liljenquist 10-to-1.

A similar lopsided outcome occurred in Connecticut, when former WWE CEO Linda McMahon's $10 million advantage helped produce a jarring 46-point margin of victory in a GOP Senate primary against former Rep. Chris Shays.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said there's another, often overlooked m-word that often becomes just as essential as money: Momentum.

"We can't read too much into who is on first and who is on second. Underdogs are almost always underfunded. If you have met a threshold amount where you're financially viable, there's other forces at play," she said. "Sometimes if people are aware of the underdog, that's enough."

David Cantanese is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.
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