Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 10, 2016

Rich Candidates, Poor House Districts

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Poliquin is running for Congress in Maine. (Meredith Dake/CQ Roll Call)

Mo’ money, mo’ problems? That’s the case for a few deep-pocketed House candidates, whose affluence has become a political issue in the districts they seek this November.

Wealth is commonplace in Congress, where one-third of the members are worth more than $1 million. But this cycle, at least four candidates running in competitive House districts boast a personal net worth in excess of $8 million, according to financial disclosure forms. And in the final months of the midterms, their opponents have found ways to use their means against them. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same playbook that sunk Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Last cycle, Democrats successfully used Romney’s estimated $250 million net worth — along with his career as a venture capitalist — to convince middle-class voters he didn’t have their best interests at heart. Hillary Rodham Clinton, considering a second presidential bid, has also taken heat recently for talking about financial struggles, despite the hefty speaking fees she earns and her relatively newfound riches.

“Middle class people do not begrudge people who make money. As long as they’re honest and hard working, everyone aspires to be that guy or that woman,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone of wealthy candidates. “It’s when you either are screwing someone else or taking advantage of someone else, or once you get there are taking care of the rich rather than the middle class.”

Four candidates on the ballot this fall are being forced to defend their wealth:

  • Former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, a Republican running against state Sen. Emily Cain in Maine’s open 2nd District. His net worth is at least $8.97 million, according to his personal financial disclosure report.
  • Businessman Stewart Mills, also a Republican, running against Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s 8th District. Mills’ net worth is at least $39.12 million.
  • Former Randolph mayor and insurance company owner Tom MacArthur, a Republican running against Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard in New Jersey’s open 3rd District. His net worth is at least $26.99 million.
  • Venture capitalist Sean Eldridge, a Democrat, running against GOP Rep. Chris Gibson in New York’s 19th District. He’s worth at least $104.48 million.

All four have already fielded criticism on their assets to varying degrees.

Eldridge has faced relentless attacks on his personal fortune from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Dubbing him “$ean Eldridge,” the NRCC called out the candidate for carpetbagging into the Hudson Valley district, buying a $2 million home there, and investing some of his immense wealth in banks, oil and tobacco companies he criticizes on the trail.

MacArthur also took flack for how he earned his millions in an ugly GOP primary to succeed retiring Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J. MacArthur’s primary opponent, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, said insurance adjusters affiliated with MacArthur made families “jump through hoops” to receive insurance money after their homes and properties were destroyed from a natural disaster.

It’s an attack line that Belgard has already started to use against MacArthur in the general election. In this south New Jersey district, many of the voters faced similar battles with insurance companies after their homes were decimated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“He got rich by helping insurance companies shortchange the victims of hurricanes and wildfires — no one should expect him to start standing up for the middle class now that he’s running for Congress,” Belgard’s campaign manager Hannah Ledford said in a statement.

Nolan began criticizing Mills’ wealth — derived from his family’s popular chain of sport and farming equipment stores peppered through the Midwest — calling him a “one percenter” who is “personally offended … that the rich should pay more taxes.” It’s an attack that could work in this district, where the median household income is $46,692 — the lowest of the Gopher State’s eight House districts — according to the most recent U.S. Census.

Poliquin also faced attacks on his wealth in a Republican primary from his opponent, former state Sen. Kevin Raye. Raye labeled Poliquin as a self-funding Wall Street hedge fund manager who could not relate to working-class Mainers.

Cain has yet to use that attack line against Poliquin now that the race has moved on the to general election.

To be sure, attacking rich candidates doesn’t always work. Eight freshmen joined Roll Call’s list of the 50 richest members of Congress after the 2012 elections, with a minimum net worth ranging from $9 million to $68.4 million.

And all four of the candidates are already trying to inoculate themselves from attacks on their affluence either by telling rags-to-riches success stories, describing themselves as job creators, or touting their philanthropic endeavors.

In his first ad for the general election contest, MacArthur’s family and friends in the community describe him as a man who ascended from middle-class roots to be a successful businessman who gives back to his community.

“My mom and dad don’t talk about it a lot, but they reach out to the forgotten: victims of Sandy, wheelchairs for those who can’t afford it, soup kitchens, Feed the Children, Habitat for Humanity, wounded vets and a school for AIDS orphans,” MacArthur’s son, David, says in a minute-long bio spot.

Mills already released a handful of biographical ads, one of which tells the story of a charity event he helps fund in his community for women struggling against domestic violence.

In a July 10 interview with CQ Roll Call, Poliquin said he rose from a middle-class upbringing and is proud of his success.

“I look at success and hard work as something that we should celebrate in America, we should celebrate in the 2nd District, we should celebrate in Maine, and we don’t have enough of that,” Poliquin said. “We have people attacking hard work and that’s wrong, that’s anti-American.”

Eldridge has touted his company’s efforts to fund businesses that create jobs in the New York district he is seeking to represent.

But it’s hard for these same candidates to run from their wealth — especially when they put some of their own funds into their campaigns.

Aside from Mills, all three have poured hundreds of thousands of personal funds into their campaigns. MacArthur spent more than $2 million from his own pocket on his race. That financial injection makes the candidate vulnerable to criticism he is trying to buy the seat.

It’s a line the NRCC is already using against Eldridge, who had put nearly $1 million of his own funds into the race as of early June.

But it might not matter in the end.

Just ask GOP Reps. Vance McAllister of Louisiana and Curt Clawson of Florida, who each spent hundreds of thousands of their own fortunes on their bids and won special elections earlier this year.

“I think the clear difference maker in self-funders in congressional races is connection to community,” said Guy Harrison, a national Republican operative. “If you have made your money, given back to the community and are not trying to randomly buy a congressional seat, you have a much better chance of winning.”

Jay Hunter contributed to this report. 

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  • JohnnyAngel Advocacy Group

    It’s the person,NOT THE MONEY. Same as it’s the person, NOT THE GUN !!

  • ShadrachSmith

    Personal wealth is Hillary’s only real political accomplishment.

  • Robert Price Rifkin

    a living in the United States ain’t what it used to be. Wages no longer keep up
    with the increasingly out of control cost of living, taxes are going up,
    expenses are going up, everything is going up and away, and everyone is
    wondering how they’re going to get past the next pay period. We talk about this

    then there’s the question of the minimum wage. This is a touchy subject for a
    lot of people. Everyone wants their neighbors to be able to support themselves
    but they worry that raising the minimum wage is going to result in a firestorm
    or firings, as companies make up the shortfall by cutting jobs.

    most people favor a hike in the minimum (many Western countries pay far higher minimum
    wages) and even the contentious Congress seems to fall on the side of the raise

    the wage hike good for business? It may or may not be. But slavery was good for
    business and I don’t think too many people would favor a return to the profitable
    days of the plantation. It’s time to give people at least a little incentive to
    get out of bed, and get to work in the morning. The $10.10 minimum wage that
    Obama is calling for is the very least American workers deserve.

  • Robert Price Rifkin

    2016 is Off and Running!

    it me or has the political world gone off it’s axis? It used to be that
    presidential campaign began about six months before the national elections and
    before you were really exhausted by all the political blather, it was time to
    inaugurate the new Chief Executive. Americans had other preoccupations and
    presidential campaigns were a once-in-four-years Constitutional requirement to
    keep the ship of state afloat.

    good, old days.

    came the advent of twenty-four hour cable television news and twenty-four-hour
    social media and twenty-four-hour talk radio. And before anyone knew what had
    happened, the subject of the day–of every day–became the next presidential
    election. It made no difference that the ink was barely dried on the present
    election. The gears were greased and the names were already being floated, even
    as the new president was taking the oath of office.

    every election cycle has gotten worse than the one that came before it. Now we
    are faced with three years–three years–of non-stop presidential campaigning
    (mostly by candidates that refuse to acknowledge that they are running for
    president, even while they make sure to make these assertions in the most
    public venues).

    used to be that running for president required a candidate to actually get out
    and meet the voters. He or she had to trek endlessly across the fifty states
    and spend truckloads of cash to get the word out. Now, with social media and
    CNN, FOX and MSNBC, all they have to do is make an announcement
    and–presto!-three hundred million people know about the decision.

    brings it all back to the American electorate, to our patience and weariness
    with the manufactured sound bites that have taken over our political

    ready, America, the 2016 Presidential election has officially begun. It may
    seem like Spring of 2014 but the next three years are going to fly by in a
    flash. Unless you turn off your computers and televisions and radios and stop
    reading newspapers and magazines, if you still know what those are.

  • charlie

    Diane Black (R-TN & Big Tobacco) used to be poor. After being in government, she and her ‘blue collar’ husband live in a millionaires’ neighborhood in Gallatin, TN, whilst she complains about government stickin’ it to the Little Guy. Once again, the (shrinking) middle class votes against its interests.

  • Andy Rojes

    Without the buffers of private property and free enterprise, collectivist charlatans are more easily able to force people to chase superstitions such as “social justice”.

  • Eigen Vcctor

    Civilization begins when we can use more knowledge than we know personally and it advances as we can do more without thinking about it.

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