Modern politics is often like modern Hollywood. That is to say that many politicians and candidates seek to “re-vision” past successful campaigns to enable their own wins. The growth of 30 second soundbite politics, deep saturation on cable television, and social media advertising are examples of this. But, sometimes such a strategy flops – in movies and politics. Which is a lesson that 2016 candidates should take to heart.
Specifically, the case of David Trone in the Maryland 8th congressional district whose loss on April 26, 2016, is the current example of failure based on recent tropes. A 9-way race for an open seat on just the Democratic side of the ticket, featured 3 prominent names – Kathleen Matthews (wife of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews); State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin; and Mr. Trone. Perhaps the single most prominent feature of this primary was the fact that Mr. Trone self-funded his campaign with $12 million. It’s a page right out of Donald Trump.
Though 50% of Congress is currently filled with millionaires, virtually none are willing to put their own money on the line with significance. Mr. Trone is only 1 of 2 individuals to run for Congress and spend over $10 million. But in a year where Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has self-funded some $36 million, to great fanfare and support, such extreme displays of personal wealth may seem like a trend worthy of copying. In addition, Mr. Trone was the farthest Left of all the Democrats – a potential positive in a year with Sen. Bernie Sanders making Hillary Clinton earn her superdelagates.
Mr. Trone outspent rival State Senator Raskin by roughly 6-1. He outspent Mrs. Matthews by nearly the same amount. She spent $2.2 million on the race, $500,000 from her own money. State Sen. Raskin spent $1.7 million, with no personal campaign contributions.
Given the longstanding trend of big spending equating to name recognition and thus a victory in elections, it could have been assumed that Mr. Trone should win. Add to that the trend of going to the furthest extreme of the Party, and on paper it would seem the winner would be Trone again. But State Sen. Raskin actually won the contested Democrat primary with 38,902 votes (34%) vs. Trone with 31,529 votes (27%).
But what could this mean to other Primaries? Well in the equally contested New York 22nd congressional race, 3 millionaires are battling 3 non-millionaires for respective primaries. In almost any eventuality, at least 1 multi-millionaire will be in that race against a far less net worth heavy opponent in the general election.
Martin Babinec, a candidate with no prior Party affiliation who is running on the Independence line after failing to gain the Herkimer County Republican Committee endorsement, is one of the candidates. Assuming that his campaign survives the petition challenges it faces (which is debatable as we noted in a prior article), his current tactic of self-funding $1 million directly mirrors David Trone. If he is thrown off of the ballot for failing to meet the petition requirement, he would also prove that self-funding, in itself, is not a political platform.
For Democrats there is Legislator Kim Myers. She is the richest of all candidates combined (depending on the stock market close of the day). Though her Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings show her intent not to spend more than $350,000 of her own money, if the general election were close it would surprise no one if she amended her FEC filing and added as much as she wanted. In a Republican heavy district, where the April presidential primary showed a 3:2 edge for Republican turnout, even a large sudden self-funding may not be enough in a general election. Though for the June primary she has exponentially more cash on hand than her Democrat challenger David Gordon and is expected to win that primary race.
It’s the Republican primary race where we see the most connection to the MD-8 race. Steve Wells is the millionaire, with no significant name recognition at this time and no prior elected office experience. Claudia Tenney is an Assemblywoman who has won primaries with huge numbers. George Phillips is a popular name with a small segment of the Republican base. This matches the MD-8 race on multiple levels. The exception being that Mr. Wells has only self-funded $100,000 so far and only has a roughly 3-1 cash advantage at this moment.
If the Presidential race is the exception and the Maryland primary the rule then Steve Wells may be in danger and Legislator Kim Myers has made the best choice to preserve her many stock options. Even with a media savvy campaign team, and torrential spending in the final weeks, Mr. Trone failed to take the prize. Based on the websites and ad campaigns thus far, neither Wells nor Legislator Myers can claim an advantage there, which makes the Trone loss potentially more likely than not.
Of course New York is not Maryland. Plus the reaction of Democrats to extreme wealth trying to win an elected office is not the same as the Republican reaction (based on presidential primary turnout results in NY). Lastly, Steve Wells and George Phillips are seen a vying for the establishment vote, with Assemblywoman Tenney as the outsider of the Party. Which somewhat reverses the conditions, though the 2nd Amendment issue (which Tenney has far more credibility on, due to a voting record opposing the NY SAFE Act) also modifies this condition.
One thing is pretty sure though, if Donald Trump wins the Republican primary and the general election, political campaigns will do what Hollywood would do and copycat the trend. If he doesn’t, the MD-8 race may stand out as an example of what not to do in future elections.