Politics & Government

Campaigns can't run on money alone

FRANKFORT -- With the Republican and Democratic primaries for governor each boasting a millionaire candidate, Kentuckians will have two chances to study just how strong the dollar is in state political campaigns.

Democrat Bruce Lunsford is back for the sequel to his dramatic 2003 political debut, which featured an aggressive TV commercial campaign as well as an abrupt exit from the race four days before the primary -- all for the blockbuster cost of $8.1 million out of his own pocket.

On the Republican side, Paducah concrete company owner Billy Harper has blanketed the airwaves since October with ads introducing himself to Kentuckians. He said in an interview Saturday that he's already spent more than $3 million out of his personal stash.

When both Lunsford and Harper were asked early on in their campaigns just how much of their own money they were willing to pump into the race, each self-assured businessman responded with three simple words: "Whatever it takes."

"That's probably simplistic terms. It isn't that I'm going to spend whatever it takes to be governor," Lunsford said Friday. "I'm looking for a way to give back to the people of Kentucky, but more importantly, I'm looking to give back to the Democratic Party."

It's more like "I'd do what it takes," Lunsford added.

But the concept of someone being able to reach into his bank account and take out a seven-figure chunk of change for a political contest -- or anything, for that matter -- is foreign to most Kentuckians, and in some cases can be a negative.

"As a voter, it turns me off," said Democratic state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville.

Marzian said it feeds the perception that candidates bother reaching voters only through slick TV ads rather than listening to and talking with them directly.

Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, a Republican, said an increased focus on campaign funds gives the wrong impression about the process.

Simply put, money isn't everything, he said.

"You certainly don't want the government to appear to be up for sale," Pence said. "The voters are smart enough to see through that."

Money still remains an essential campaign resource that, if harnessed properly, can help reach voters and hammer home a message that will inspire their vote.

Millionaire candidates have had mixed success with that in Kentucky.

In 1979, fast-food magnate John Y. Brown Jr. leaped late into the Democratic primary, then shelled out his own money to fly around the state in a helicopter with wife and former Miss America, Phyllis George. Brown won.

Eight years later, another millionaire, Lexington book dealer Wallace Wilkinson, sank a small fortune into the race and sneaked by Brown and then-Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear in the Democratic primary for governor.

Wilkinson first spent two years building up a network of supporters across the state. And he used his money to push for a state lottery to pay for education reforms --a message that became contagious among voters.

Others, such as Louisville entrepreneur Charlie Owen, haven't realized such a return on their investments.

Owen lost the Democratic nomination for Congress in 1994, then the party's primary for U.S. Senate in 1998 after spending nearly $7 million in that race.

"I don't think people dislike or blame a candidate because they've been successful and can put money into their own campaign," Owen said. But he said an organization of active supporters is, in some ways, more important than dollars, especially in a primary, which typically attracts less than 25 percent of voters.

One way for millionaire candidates to help build support is to use their money as down payments, then seek donors to "invest" in the campaign, Owen said.

Harper, the GOP millionaire candidate, said he's trying to do just that now.

"Our conclusion was that ultimately you've got to sell your message and get them to buy in -- not only with their vote but also buy in" literally, he said. Harper's message is that he's not a politician but a businessman who wants to improve education.

Harper said Wilkinson's formula of organized supporters and ubiquitous message is a winner.

"We're doing it backwards from the way he did it," Harper said, noting that he is only now focusing on lining up dedicated supporters. "But we think it will work, obviously."

Creating a well-rounded campaign to go along with the money can make the difference between being a political force, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a more "cartoonish figure," such as former presidential candidate Ross Perot, said Lance Huffman, president of the Centre College Republicans.

"More than the money and the lights and sound and rock star status, you need an organization and a message," he said. "The biggest challenge is earning legitimacy in the public eye."

And that -- even the wealthy candidates admit -- is tough to buy.