Cost of name recognition

U.S. Senate candidate has spent $5 million of his own money

Maryland Votes 2006

August 29, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

Josh Rales, the wealthy businessman-turned-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, seems to be all over the airwaves with those wonky, earnest television ads he is using to introduce himself and his self-financed campaign to voters.

In fact, he is. In the past two months, Maryland viewers have seen his bespectacled face nearly 4,000 times, almost five times as often as U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of the front-runners, according to a national political media research firm.

TNS Media International/CMAG of Northern Virginia found that Rales has spent more money on television advertisements - $5.4 million as of yesterday - than any other Senate primary candidate in the nation this year.

But will all this money spent on an underdog campaign produce a victory for a political newcomer who was virtually unknown just two months ago? Is it simply an exercise in self-promotion? Or is it a down payment toward a future campaign?

"The Rales campaign - win, lose or draw - his investment is probably enough that he's probably going to make a name for himself in Maryland politics," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media. "If he doesn't win this time, he'll be set up for something else. The investment is not necessarily a bad one if he's got other plans.

"If it's a one-and-done situation, it's an awfully big birthday present to yourself."

The biggest contributor, by far, to the Rales campaign is Josh Rales himself.

As of Aug. 17, he had donated $5.15 million of his own money, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Cardin had raised $4.8 million through the end of June. Former congressman and national NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, who polls show is in a tight race with Cardin for the seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, had raised less than $1 million by that time.

Rales is among the biggest self-financiers in the nation this election cycle. Only a few Senate wannabes - Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts, Vermont Republican Richard E. Tarrant and Arizona Democrat Jim Pederson - have given their campaigns more. Incumbent Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin - a third-term Democrat - has also given his campaign more than $5 million.

Rales made his fortune - reported as up to $120 million in net worth and salary in documents he filed with the U.S. Senate this year - in real estate development and has given millions to charities. He says he can easily afford to pour a chunk of his assets into even the most uphill effort. His family won't suffer, he says, nor will his philanthropy.

"I'm not going to be out there with a tin cup when this is over," he said during a recent campaign stop. "It's not going to put a dent in my pocketbook. It's going to give me a chance to communicate with the people of Maryland."

He bristles at any suggestion that he is trying to buy a Senate seat. He insists it can't be done.

There are a few examples of success in that arena, particularly among people who weren't well-known in some way before they ran. In 2000, retired investment banker Jon Corzine, a political novice, famously spent $63 million of his own money to win a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey.

But many more have failed. In 2004, 14 people tried to win Senate seats by spending more than $1 million of their own money. They all lost. In Illinois, financier Blair Hull spent $28.6 million of his own money but lost the Democratic primary that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money on elections. Maryland state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and former Wall Street junk bond trader, spent nearly $1.6 million in his unsuccessful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski two years ago, according to the center.

"Self-financed candidates tend to lose," said Massie Ritsch, the center's communications director. "As investments go, financing your own political campaign is a terrible investment. On some level you have to question someone's business sense when you look at the track record. But there are exceptions."

Most self-financed candidates are challengers, and in Congress challengers typically lose, he said. In 2004, 98 percent of House incumbents won re-election; 96 percent of incumbents were returned to the Senate, he said.

Rales - whose campaign ads have focused on education, health care and energy policy and his impatience with the rising toll of the Iraq war - said his first strategy has been to announce his presence to voters who might not know him. On the campaign trail, it is clear that people recognize him from his ubiquitous ads.

He says voters are warming up to him, and now he needs to convert them into Rales voters.

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