The race features two mega-millionaires, in a contest that promises to be one of the costliest in American history. Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent, with the Republican candidate promising to continue to dip into her family’s vast fortune to the tune of $50 million.
The campaign is a dead-heat. But the winner could determine who controls the U.S. Senate.
With a month to go until Election Day, what should the Democrat do, given his fundraising disadvantage?
Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, has decided to leave his family money alone. Not dipping into his wealth may be a personal decision, but it’s one that could have major political ramifications.
“Does he need to be spending more? Yes,” says Tom D’Amore, former chief of staff to Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker. “Is it going to cost a lot of money? Yes.”
Blumenthal, who came by his present job with his perfect East Coast establishment pedigree—Harvard College, White House aide, Yale Law School, Supreme Court clerk—came into his money by marrying well.
In 1982, he wed Cynthia Malkin, the daughter of Isabel Wien Malkin and Peter L. Malkin, whose surnames adorn buildings and scholarships at schools like Brandeis, Harvard, and Columbia. The Malkin family, through Malkin Securities, owns 10 million square feet of real estate, including the Empire State Building. According to campaign filings, the Malkin family’s wealth could exceed $100 million.
“They can feel her hot breath on their neck,” John Dorney, former chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee of Connecticut, says of the McMahon campaign.
The Blumenthal family lives in a 17-room spread in Greenwich, Connecticut—the Gold Coast of the hedge-fund world—in a home last valued at $2.5 million that places the crusading attorney general in unfriendly territory. (Barack Obama was the first Democrat to win the town’s vote in 44 years.)
Last year, Richard and Cynthia gave more than $100,000 to charity. The Blumenthal campaign, however, hasn’t merited any major giving because, Blumenthal says, he wants to win through a “grassroots fundraising effort.” (Blumenthal hasn’t always hewed to that narrow path. In 1990, he spent $250,000 of his own money on his first campaign for attorney general.)
Not every wealthy candidate wants to spend their own money on their campaigns, and there are plenty of millionaires who, once secure in Congress, have refrained from drawing on their own fortunes. Moreover, self-funding doesn’t always lead to success. In Senate primaries this year, only three of the top 10 self-funders eventually won their races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But as the Republican candidate, Linda McMahon, has blanketed the state with advertising, turning a little-known wrestling executive into a one-name phenomenon called “Linda,” the race has gotten tighter. “They can feel her hot breath on their neck,” John Dorney, former chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee of Connecticut, says of the McMahon campaign.
A Quinnipiac poll taken this week shows that Blumenthal’s lead has slipped to 3 percent, making it clear that Blumenthal must figure out a way to take on McMahon—and her spending.
One-third of respondents to the Quinnipiac survey said that Blumenthal isn’t advertising enough. But increasing advertising in Connecticut’s expensive ad market—which includes New York City, where a week of ads goes for around $500,000—is going to take a serious investment.
Blumenthal’s fundraising, according to available campaign-finance filings, has been on the lackluster side. And no other Democrat is facing a spending-machine like McMahon.
Hamstrung by a short campaign season (Blumenthal didn’t declare his candidacy until January 2010, when Sen. Chris Dodd announced he wouldn’t seek reelection), Blumenthal raised less money by the end of the second quarter ($3.5 million) than did other Democrats seeking open seats, including Missouri’s Robin Carnahan ($7.6 million), Florida’s Kendrick Meek ($7.3 million), Illinois’s Alexi Giannoulias ($5.7 million), and Kentucky’s Jack Conway ($3.9 million), among others.
Considering that Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the country, the fundraising total is particularly striking. Back in 2008, before the market crashed, nearly 4,000 Connecticut homes reported an annual income of $2 million or more.
“He hasn’t had to raise money. He’s been running as attorney general on a limited type of campaign against people who don’t really have any money. There was no need for the tremendous amount of money in a television war,” Dorney says about Blumenthal’s earlier campaigns.
Another sign of the campaign’s fundraising weakness is the fact that both Presidents Obama and Clinton traveled to Connecticut to pass the hat for Blumenthal. Obama captured the underdog mood of the Democratic campaign: “Dick, she has more money than you—just in case there was any confusion,” the president said to a laughing crowd this month.
Blumenthal’s campaign didn’t return requests for comment.
But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claims the Dems aren’t worried. "Richard Blumenthal is running an aggressive, smart campaign and will have the resources to compete in Connecticut as Linda McMahon faces serious questions about her record of reaping millions yet laying off 10 percent of her work force, peddling sex and violence to children, and mistreating wrestlers,” the DSCC said in a written statement.
The committee is putting its money where its mouth is--and also signaling its concerns--by buying $300,000 in television advertising in the Hartford market, Politico reported Thursday.
The McMahon campaign, meanwhile, considers its extravagance to be a sign of honor.
“Linda has skin in the game,” campaign spokesman Ed Patru says.
And McMahon has made Blumenthal’s decision to take money from political action committees a central attack line, saying it compromises his independence. McMahon cut one ad, showing Blumenthal walking around alone in Vancouver at a fundraising event for lawyers. (As attorney general, Blumenthal had promised to abstain from PAC funding.)
While Blumenthal himself may have pledged not to dip into his own coffers, seven members of his family and the Malkin family gave the state Democratic committee a combined $70,000—the maximum amount—on the same day in June. The McMahon camp sees these donations as a kind of rear-guard attack, enabling Blumenthal to fund negative attacks from the party while saying that his campaign takes the high ground.
But $70,000 doesn’t stack that high next to McMahon’s millions.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.