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12.08.10

The GOP Campaign That Won't Die

If you thought that you’d seen the last political ad in November, think again. At least one candidate took out statewide television ads to remind voters of her existence—just weeks later. Shushannah Walshe talks to Linda McMahon about the perpetual campaign

If you thought that more than a month after Election Day political campaigning was—mercifully—over, you’d be mistaken.

For Linda McMahon, who spent close to $50 million of her own money in an unsuccessful campaign for the Connecticut Senate seat, it only took a few weeks before she was back on air, running statewide post-election TV ads.

In an interview with The Daily Beast on Wednesday, McMahon denied her ads were politically motivated, although she sounded like she was still on the trail. The ads, which ran for two days throughout the state, were merely intended to thank the voters at a time when she was “really trying to figure how I can effectively give back.”

Should she decide to run again in the future, one option for her would be to go for Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat, which will be up in 2012. “I’m not taking anything off the table,” she said when asked.

Other candidates—including Christine O’Donnell, who lost her bid for the Delaware Senate seat, and Sharron Angle, who unsuccessfully ran for Harry Reid’s job in Nevada—have already flirted with the idea of future runs. This week, O’Donnell announced she would set up a political action committee that would focus on issues such as repealing health-care reform and getting rid of the “death tax.” (O’Donnell still has $925,000 left over from November.) And Angle has coyly hinted at “ lots of options.” McMahon, too, said she wants to start a political action committee focused on issues like high-school drop-out prevention, autism, and education reform.

But campaign historians said they couldn’t recall an instance of another losing candidate shelling out more money for a post-election ad.

Professor Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, said that staying visibly engaged could be useful, especially because the volatility of the political moment might turn out to be an opportunity for those who lost in November. Many Republicans say the Democrats are vulnerable, and that things may look even better for them in 2012.

“A loser this year can be a winner two years from now,” Zelizer said. “You may try to stay in the mix.”

“A loser this year can be a winner two years from now.”

But others said that staying in the public eye—and on television—is a strategy that carries a risk. Brian Donahue, a media and digital consultant to the GOP, says making ads may not be “the wisest use of personal funds.” Donahue, who himself has created several political ads, says that reminding voters “that you have a ton of personal wealth” can backfire. “I think voters were prepared to put the election away, and didn’t want to see another ad after November 2nd—for any candidates, anywhere. They had enough, and it serves as a reminder that politicians are out there with their personal money, trying to appeal to their senses,” Donahue said. “There are smarter and less expensive ways to show value to voters in future elections.”

Even though she lost, McMahon said she wanted to thank voters in the state through radio, print, and television ads saying, “I wrote and said exactly what I was thinking.” Standing in front of a bookcase, McMahon looks straight at the camera, telling viewers, “I didn't win the election, but to everyone whose hand I shook, who touched my heart, and who challenged my thinking throughout the campaign, I wanted to say: Thank you."

Craig Engle, a GOP campaign-finance lawyer, says only about half of the candidates who run end up with money left over after the election—after all, the point is to spend it. He added that any surplus funds can only be used for political, not personal use.

“The one thing any candidate cannot do with their donors’ funds is convert that money into any personal use. They can use for political expenditures, run for another office, or maybe even convert it into a PAC. There is broad discretion for everything except personal use of the donations.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said candidates expect to lose the first time they run. Since the Tea Party movement is still searching for its leaders, she says, there is an added impetus for candidates to stay actively engaged.

“They would be foolish to turn away from it,” Jamieson said. “Once you have visibility in the party structure, you want to signal you aren’t going anywhere. You want them to face you down, if they want that open seat.”

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.