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The best democracy money can buy
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U.S. Senator Mark Dayton (D-MN) spent $12 million on the 2000 race. He says using his own money has kept him independent in Washington D.C. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
There are at least 40 millionaires in the United States Senate. Political watchdogs say they expect that number to increase because the national political parties are recruiting candidates who are wealthy and willing to spend millions of dollars of their own money to run for office. So-called 'Self-financed" candidates say campaigning with their own money makes them more independent of special interests. But critics worry the trend will make political campaigns more expensive and put public office out of reach for average Americans.

St. Paul, Minn. — Mark Dayton spent nearly $12 million of his own money to win a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota in 2000. Dayton is a Democrat and an heir to the family that founded the Dayton Department Stores. Financial disclosure reports say his estimated net worth is between $4 million and $17 million. Dayton says he chose to spend his own money on the senate race because he didn't want to solicit help from others. "I hate asking for money," Dayton said. "It used to be taking money from people used to be a pejorative term now it's a political necessity. That idea that asking people to give money for whatever their reasons is something I find inherently distasteful."

Dayton's wealth allowed him to purchase scores of radio and television ads that helped get his name and message out to the voters.

Dayton's main opponent in the 2000 election said it was hard to keep up with Dayton's wealth.

"It was awfully hard for us to compete against somebody who was spending the amount of money that was spent against us in the campaign," Republican Rod Grams said.

Republican Rod Grams estimates that Dayton ran eleven radio and television advertisements to every one ad Grams ran. At the time, Grams was a first term senator who didn't have millions in his personal bank account. He raised $7.7 million for his campaign. But he said a third of that amount went back into staff salaries and fundraising. Grams says he and 12 staffers spent a significant amount of time and money on fundraising for his reelection. He says it's exceedingly difficult for average citizens to successfully compete for federal office.

"Unless you're inherently wealthy or able to compete in this arena with these type of people that can self finance," Grams said. "I think you're going to create a class of elitists who can run for office and average people will no longer have that opportunity. And that really turns politics on its head from what we've known in the past."

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Image Rod Grams says he couldn't compete...

Mark Dayton is among a group of office seekers who are using their own fortunes to win office. By comparison, Dayton's spending pales. In the same election cycle, Democrat Jon Corzine spent more than $60 million dollars to win a New Jersey Senate seat. In 2001, Republican Michael Bloomberg spent close to $70 million dollars of his own money to become mayor of New York City.

Political anaylysts say both the Democratic and Republican National committees are recruiting wealthy candidates who are willing to fund their own campaigns. Carlton College Political Science Professor Steven Schier says self funders provide a significant advantage for a national party. He says wealth dominates when a wealthy candidate faces a candidate of average means.

"It's not an even playing field," Schier said. "If you're self funded, you can simply mark all the time that you would use for fundraising off your calender. Your opponent is going to have to do that, run out there and raise all that money. You don't have to do that. You can focus all of your time on the voters and on the election campaign. It's a tremendous advantage."

Larry Noble, executive director of the Washington DC based Center for Responsive Politics, says self financed campaigns drive up the cost of running for office. He says candidates who run against a multimillionaire are forced to raise millions to counter their opponent's message.

"A worker who is holding down two jobs is very dependent on overtime pay and is worrying about their kids through school may wonder if a senator who is a millionaire really understands their daily plight."
- Larry Noble, Center for Responsive Politics

Noble says most voters don't seem to care if a candidate chooses to spend their personal wealth on a campaign as long as they keep in touch with the average voter. The danger comes when citizens begin to believe elected officials are out of touch with them.

"A worker who is holding down two jobs is very dependent on overtime pay and is worrying about their kids through school," Noble said. "They may wonder if a senator who is a millionaire really understands their daily plight."omes when citizens begin to believe elected officials are out of touch with them."

Noble says the one advantage of self financing is that a candidate can become independent of special interest money. Senator Mark Dayton agrees. He says many members of Congress are not voting on behalf of their constituents. He says they vote the way special interest groups want, because they give them the most money.

"It's poisoned the well very definitely, it's polluted the well," Dayton said. "Unfortunately it's why people have become so cynical and distrustful toward government because they can't have any confidence any more that government is looking out for their interests rather than the moneyed interests."

Still, not everyone believes a self financed campaign guarantees is an automatic win. While wealth may help, money doesn't matter if you don't connect with voters. Ron Eibensteiner, the chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, says Mark Dayton's victory over republican Rod Grams had less to do with money, than the fact that Grams didn't run an effective campaign. Eibensteiner says he courts candidates with good ideas and not a big bank account.

""It doesn't matter who has the money, it matters who has the ideas," Eibensteiner said. "Those ideas are what connect with the voters and by in large those candidates will win 95 percent of the time."

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Image He believes ideas are better than a big wallet.

Members of Congress, however, are concerned about self financed candidates. Larry Noble, with the Center for Responsive Politics, says the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law created a so-called "millionaire's amendment". The law allows any candidate to increase the amount they take from individuals and groups if they're facing a candidate who puts millions of their own money into their own campaign.

""It's a very complicated provision. It's one of these provisions, that I have no doubt, was put in as an incumbent protection provision, "Noble said. "What you had there basically was incumbents very worried about facing self financed millionaire candidates so they basically gave themselves a break on the contribution limits if they're facing some of these people."

As for Senator Mark Dayton, he doesn't intend to fully finance his 2006 reelection bid. He says he can't afford to fund another campaign like he did in 2000. He says he'll seek contributions one donor at a time.

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