By Paul Merrion
Some buy professional football teams. Some try to fly around the world in a balloon. And some among the super-rich take a flier on politics, reaching for the sky: a seat in the U.S. Senate, a governorship or even the White House.
Yet, for every Michael Bloomberg, who spent $73 million to become mayor of New York, or Jon Corzine, who self-funded a $63-million race to become a senator from New Jersey, many more aspiring political cowboys have been, as Ross Perot might put it, "all hat and no cattle."
Most, in fact, lose, and fears that personal fortunes would overwhelm the electoral process prove to have been vastly overstated. Voters seem, thus far, perfectly capable of rejecting a wealthy candidate, no matter how many commercials he or she runs, and of embracing one in spite of all the spending. Meantime, television and radio outlets, billboard companies, direct-mail firms and political consultants certainly appreciate the business.
"If voters believe you haven't earned your spurs, that you haven't done what's needed to be a leader, you've got a problem," says Ronald Faucheux, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and former publisher and editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine, the bible of the political consulting business.
The question in this year's U.S. Senate race in Illinois is what kind of wealthy candidate M. Blair Hull is going to be: one whose off-the-charts spending eventually grinds down his better-established opponents, or one who ends up somewhere between a trivia question and a political laughingstock?
Mr. Hull, a 61-year-old Democrat, parlayed blackjack winnings in his youth into a career in the securities markets as founder and majority owner of an electronic market-making firm. He sold Hull Group Inc. in 1999 to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for $531 million. With a personal net worth exceeding $300 million, he recently anted up on his bet that it would take $40 million to win his first race for office.
Ferrying Seniors to Canada
Having spent $5.6 million as of September ? almost $600,000 more than all 15 other candidates in both parties combined ? he disclosed a month later that he had put $12.5 million into the campaign. The campaign will soon report fourth-quarter spending of about $3.5 million on print and broadcast advertising statewide, according to a Hull spokesman.
It's not all traditional campaign fare. He organized two bus trips taking seniors to Canada so they can buy cheaper prescriptions, underscoring health care reform as one of his major issues. The bus, lodging and meals cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per trip.
Along with his push for health care reform, Mr. Hull fits the standard profile of an abortion-rights, pro-education, pro-environment, pro-labor liberal Democrat. His most distinctive message is that self-funding his campaign ? no contributions of more than $100 are accepted ? allows him to avoid "making decisions for political reasons, not the right reasons."
That's how rich candidates ? from publishing scion Steve Forbes, who mounted abysmal presidential bids in 1996 and 2000, to Internet executive Maria Cantwell, elected Democratic senator from Microsoft country four years ago ? usually spin the assumption that they're just trying to buy their way into power.
'A Campaign Manager's Dream'
Other campaigns can only gaze wistfully ? maybe slack-jawed is the word ? at Mr. Hull's ability to fund a nearly 40-person headquarters staff in Chicago, plus dozens more staffers in nine field offices and a mobile outpost, a $40,000 used recreational vehicle dubbed "Hull on Wheels."
By contrast, state Sen. Barack Obama of Chicago, considered one of the Democratic front-runners in the Senate race, is running what's considered to be a full-fledged campaign with seven field offices and 11 full-time paid staffers, and "3? of those are fund-raisers," says campaign manager James Cauley.
Downstate, Mr. Hull's campaign brochures have been landing in mailboxes like Christmas catalogs, and "one is more gorgeous than the next," says an unaffiliated Democratic strategist in the state. "It's sort of a campaign manager's dream. It's all of the toys you've ever dreamed of."
"People know who Blair Hull is now," says John Gianulis, chairman of the Illinois Democratic County Chairman's Assn., who is neutral in the race. (Mr. Hull contributed $5,000 to the association in 2002.) "I'm not going to say he's the front-runner, but he may be a surprise. If he can continue the barrage, he could come in and swipe away this nomination."
?2004 by Crain Communications Inc.