Viewpoints: Money can’t buy love in politics

Norton Simon is more than a museum in Pasadena. The late millionaire and philanthropist for whom the museum is named once was a California political candidate, spending freely of his own fortune to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

That was in 1970, and he went down to an ignominious defeat in the Republican primary at the hands of incumbent George Murphy, a onetime actor and song-and-dance man. Not that it mattered, because Murphy then was unseated by Democrat John Tunney.

At any rate, Simon was somewhat of a precedent-setter – the first in a long line of wealthy candidates dipping into their own bank accounts to enter politics at the top, reaching for either the Governor’s Office or the U.S. Senate. They think big.

Though many have tried, none have succeeded. That brings us to Neel Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs official who seems to think that with enough cash and “crazy train” rhetoric about high-speed rail, he can unseat Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Kashkari sank $2 million of his own money into the June primary against a hapless Republican opponent, Tim Donnelly, and managed only 19 percent of the vote, enough to put him in the November race against Brown.

It’s too bad Kashkari could not have talked to Simon before he died in 1993, because he just might have advised him not to waste his money on a Don Quixote-like effort that is almost certainly doomed to failure.

The most recent example is Meg Whitman, the Republican businesswoman who ran through $144 million of her fortune, yet crashed and burned at the hands of Brown in 2010. In 2006, Steve Westly, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, spent $44 million in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but lost to state Treasurer Phil Angelides, no piker himself, who then lost to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And who could ever forget the boisterous Al Checchi, a successful Democratic businessman who used his own money to set what was then a spending record for a California governor’s race – $40 million. He lost in the 1998 primary to Gray Davis, getting only 12.5 percent of the vote.

Another wealthy candidate, investment banker William Simon, spent freely of his own money in a 2002 race for governor and won the GOP primary, but lost to Davis in the general election.

“One of the problems with self-financing is you don’t focus on building the team in a campaign, so the campaign lacks the requisite enthusiasm, excitement, sense of belonging, that they have when you’re out soliciting contributions and supporters,” Sal Russo, a political consultant to Simon, told an interviewer at the time. “I think it handicaps a campaign.”

There also is the perception that the wealthier a candidate, the less he or she is apt to identify with the problems of the average voter. That can be a substantial hurdle.

Republican Michael Huffington, whose riches came from a family-owned energy company in Texas, found that out in 1994 when he depleted his bank account by $100 million in a futile effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Corporate executive Carly Fiorina also got the message in 2010, putting more than $6 million of her own into her campaign but losing to incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. Boxer made ample use in a TV spot of Fiorina virtually boasting of massive layoffs at Hewlett-Packard when she headed that company, and shipping 30,000 jobs overseas. Not exactly a winning formula.

The fact that all these losing candidates had money to burn leads to a lack of budget constraints, spending heavily on those they consider political experts and taking a scattershot approach to TV ads, trying to be all things to all people.

Democratic political consultant Garry South, a veteran of numerous California campaigns, said in an interview several years ago that successful people in business underestimate the difficulty of running for office. “They think because they’re successful in business, they’re smarter, better and more clever than anybody in politics,” he said. “They honestly don’t get that the things that they’re most proud of in their business life don’t compute in the political world.”

Kashkari says his pockets are not deep enough to self-fund his campaign entirely, so he is following Russo’s advice to Simon to reach out to Republican donors. But South had this to say to him via Twitter when he announced his candidacy.

“Neel, buddy” wrote South, “wanna get together so I can share some CA political history lessons with ya? Could save you a lot of money.”