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California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman concedes the race to California Attorney-General and Democratic candidate Jerry Brown in Universal City, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
California Republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman concedes the race to California Attorney-General and Democratic candidate Jerry Brown in Universal City, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Campaign Spending

Meg Whitman's millions can't buy her love in California election Add to ...

What did $140-million-plus U.S. dollars buy in Tuesday's midterm election?

If you're Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay who ran for governor of California, the answer is, well, nothing.

Ms. Whitman dropped more than a tenth of her personal fortune on the race yet still lost to Democrat Jerry Brown by 12 percentage points.

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While money may be essential in politics, it doesn't always buy you love. That's one of the lessons emerging from the most expensive non-presidential election in U.S. history, with a total tab estimated at $4-billion.

The vote also reaffirmed the ongoing arms race between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to campaign spending. The latest weapon: a host of new independent groups, mostly conservative, that tapped undisclosed sources of cash to run political ads in key races.

For future candidates, this year's election spending will provide both inspiration and warning. Billionaires would do well to heed Ms. Whitman's experience. As of two weeks ago, she had spent $163-million. All but $20-million or so out came out of her pocket.

She ran 1,300 television spots a day, according to one group tracking advertising. She set up 90 campaign offices throughout the state. She spent more than $11-million simply on brochures and mailings.

"Being a witness to it all was really unpleasant, because it was so oversaturated and so negative," says Barbara O'Connor, an expert on politics and media at California State University, Sacramento. "The only people who were happy in California in the last month were the owners of radio and TV stations."

Despite outspending her opponent by a ratio of six to one, Ms. Whitman still didn't make sufficient inroads with two key groups of voters in the state - women and Hispanics. She also became entangled in a controversy over her former housekeeper, who was in the country illegally.

Ms. Whitman wasn't the only wealthy candidate who stumbled. Linda McMahon, once the head of a wrestling-cum-entertainment empire, ran as the Republican contender for Senate from Connecticut. She contributed $46-million of her own money to her campaign, outgunning her Democrat opponent, Ralph Blumenthal. Still he went on to win by a wide margin.

"I have something money can't buy - I have you," Mr. Blumenthal told supporters in a victory speech late Tuesday night. "Connecticut today had an election, not an auction."

Candidates who can afford to pay their own way in a political campaign may miss out on some of the key building blocks of success. Fundraising can be tawdry and exhausting and dispiriting, but "it also allows a candidate to talk with people and build [a]political base," says Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Self-funded candidates don't have a great track record, he notes, regardless of the party. While it's always an advantage to have a larger war chest than an opponent, that benefit dissipates when the money comes from the candidate's own stash.

Mr. Bender's institute examined state-level races over nine years and found that when candidates used their own wealth to take the top fundraising spot, they went on to victory a little more than half of the time. Those who amassed a financial lead the old-fashioned way - by raising it from other people - went on to win almost nine times out of 10.

Of course, candidates aren't the only ones who spend in the hope of victory, especially in federal races. The national parties also lend their considerable resources. Increasingly, outside groups too are jumping in to support or oppose a candidate, often with funds whose sources aren't disclosed.

A host of such groups sprung up this year and poured money into some of the nation's most competitive races, says Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics. Those contests include the Senate races in Colorado and Nevada, where the Democrat incumbents were able to grind out victories despite a wave of spending by conservative groups.

Such groups "were really pushing the envelope, especially around disclosure and anonymous donations," says Mr. Bender, who adds that their spending is a harbinger of things to come on both sides of the political divide. "In 2012 you're going to see this [multiplied]by 10."

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