By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - In at least one way, Jerry Springer would be the typical modern Senate candidate if he decides today to run: He's rich.
As Senate races get more and more expensive, the two political parties often recruit, or sometimes get stuck with, "self-financing" candidates - rich people willing to pay for their own campaigns.
"It's an open society. And as in many other domains in life, whether it's big-market versus small-market franchises in baseball, money dominates," said George Bishop, a University of Cincinnati political science professor. "You're going to see more of this."
The average winning Senate campaign had to raise more than $5 million last year, according to Federal Election Commission statistics. But close races or races in big states are usually far more expensive.
The Senate race in North Carolina last year cost $27 million; New York's 2000 Senate race cost more than $90 million.
It's no wonder that at least 42 senators are millionaires.
The ultimate self-funder, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., spent $60 million of his own money to get elected in 2000. Now he leads the group in charge of getting Democrats to retake the Senate.
He has said he would look for self-funders if he can, though that would not be the only criteria.
"In terms of candidates who have money, candidates who are self-funders, it's certainly an asset - no question about it," said Mike Siegel, spokesman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Corzine chairs. "But it's by no means a litmus test or the only qualification we're looking for."
Corzine said Tuesday the prospect of a self-funded candidate is a plus because it would allow the party to spend more of its resources on other races. But he wouldn't speculate on how much the committee would spend in Ohio with or without Springer.
Self-funders pumped in $22.2 million in donations and loans to their own Senate campaigns in 2002, which actually was down from the record two years before of nearly $90 million. But that record was mostly from one race, Corzine's $60 million campaign.
In 1990, about 4.8 percent of campaign money came from the candidates themselves. Last year it was 7.9 percent.
In the House, it has risen more steadily. Last year candidates invested $47 million in their own races, a record. It amounted to about 8.8 percent of campaign spending, up from 5.5 percent in 1990.
Springer is unusual because he's already well known. Usually, self-funders come from the business world, and their money goes to building their name recognition, said Kent Cooper of Politicalmoneyline.com, a campaign finance Web site.
So far this year, Democrats have recruited millionaire investment banker Blair Hull in Illinois, who has said he will spend up to $40 million of his own money on the campaign. Erskine Bowles, who spent $6.8 million of his own money on a losing 2002 campaign, may run again in 2004.
In 2000, the Democrats won Senate seats in Washington, New Jersey, and Minnesota by recruiting millionaires Maria Cantwell, Corzine and Mark Dayton.
Bishop said the old-fashioned way of getting to the Senate involved "paying your dues," working up through city council or the state House, for example. But the candidacies of the rich or famous - like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Corzine or Springer - may "open the floodgates," he said.
Rich candidates do have some pluses for the public, said Larry Higdon, chairman of the Cincinnati chapter of Common Cause.
They won't be in thrall to the special-interest groups who give money to campaigns, he said. That means they don't have to kowtow to big business or big labor, which tend to pay for most of the congressional campaigns.
And it allows a candidate, once elected, to spend more time serving his constituents than making fund-raising phone calls, Higdon said. A section of the new campaign finance law, known as the "millionaire's amendment," allows candidates up against self-financing millionaires to raise much more money from individual contributors - as much as $12,000, as opposed to the usual $2,000. The rates are different for every state, and use a complicated formula for Senate races.
"The calculations are extremely confusing," said Raquel Whiting, campaign manager for Ohio Democrat Eric Fingerhut, who has declared his Senate candidacy.
Whatever the numbers turn out to be, they'll be a big help against a millionaire like Springer, she said.
"It is really hard when people are self-financing. Someone like Eric doesn't have millions of dollars of his own money," Whiting said. "He's given his whole life to public service."
Springer has said he would spend $3 million to $4 million of his own money.
Gannett News Service reporter Ledyard King contributed. E-mail email@example.com
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