Remember California's Governor William Matson Roth? You probably don't. How about U.S. Senator Norton Simon? (I know: you're thinking, “Isn't there a museum named after him in Pasadena?”)
Here's a pair of easier ones: Governor Al Checchi? U.S. Senator Mike Huffington?
You're catching on, aren't you? Let's clinch it:
Governor Meg Whitman?
While Ms. Whitman still has an outside chance of beating former governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday, most people are now aware that her attempt to purchase California's governor's mansion is falling short. (The joke is on her! Jerry rejected the governor's mansion during his first term in the 1970s and the Reagan-designed mediocrity in Carmichael was sold as a white elephant.)
All of the people cited above were (or are) multi-millionaires who decided the best route to elective office was a self-funded campaign. While Whitman is taking the cake with over $140 million having been dug out of her deep, deep pockets, her predecessors were pikers only by comparison.
Norton Simon accurately appraised U.S. Senator George Murphy as a light-weight party hack out of touch with the California electorate and decided to challenge him in the 1970 Republican primary. Murphy was a former Hollywood song-and-dance man who had won the seat in a kind of fluke in the Johnson landslide year of 1964, breasting the Democratic tide by beating Pierre Salinger, the short-term placeholder senator who had been appointed when the elected senator died in office.
Simon's dollars, however, could not dislodge the “senator from Technicolor.” Sen. Murphy won the GOP nomination (although he lost in the general election).
In 1974, former University of California regent William Matson Roth decided on a similar good-government tack. Once again, a millionaire spent freely to gain political office. As a self-funded candidate, Roth would of course be beholden to no one, since there would be no financial strings on him. (Sound familiar?) As it turned out, he would not be beholden to many voters, either, since they cast their ballots for other candidates. He came in fourth in the Democratic primary. The winner? Jerry Brown.
Mike Huffington, a Republican from a California coastal district, might be the exception to the rule that rich candidates can't buy political office. He had displaced his predecessor, a long-serving Republican congressman from Santa Barbara, by washing him away in a tidal wave of money in the 1992 GOP primary. All told, Huffington spent $5.4 million dollars for a congressional seat (but at least he got it). Naturally political consultants and media outlets rejoiced and salivated when Rep. Huffington began to gear up in 1994 for a U.S. senate race against incumbent Dianne Feinstein.
Again, money flowed like water—$28 million this time. But Mike never became a U.S. senator. In rapid succession, Huffington lost to Feinstein, announced he was gay (or at least bisexual), and divorced his wife Arianna. (She probably didn't mind, though, since it was now clear that Mike was not her ticket to becoming First Lady.)
These lessons were lost on former airline executive Al Checchi, who thought it would be nice to be California's governor. He never made it to the general election. In 1998 he dropped $39 million into the Democratic primary, but lost to Gray Davis, who spent “only” $9 million.
Is it ironic or merely amusing that Whitman's opponent in Tuesday's election—the once and future governor Jerry Brown—made his political career back in the 1970s by sponsoring the Fair Political Practices Act, which created the reporting mechanism that tracks all of this wacky campaign spending and established the state's disclosure rules (which the federal government would do well to emulate)? The Fair Political Practices Commission recently released a report that makes for some sadly entertaining reading: Breaking the Bank: Primary Campaign Spending for Governor since 1978. Shake your head and cluck your tongue while scanning the cost-per-vote data for the losers, who clearly had more dollars than sense (or votes).
Let's give Jerry Brown the last word. From an article by Bill Boyarsky in the Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1973, when Brown was California's secretary of state and gearing up for his first successful gubernatorial run:
Democratic Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr. proposed Thursday that he and the other prospective candidates for governor spend no more than $750,000 each in the 1974 primary election.