COLUMBUS, Ohio – Millionaire candidates and billionaire investors are harnessing their considerable personal wealth to try to win competitive Republican primaries for open U.S. Senate seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Mike Gibbons, an Ohio investment banker, leads the pack of self-funders in both states after lending his campaign almost $17 million. Three other wealthy candidates in the Ohio race — state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team; former Ohio Republican chair Jane Timken, whose husband’s family founded the steel giant Timken Co.; and “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance — have lent or contributed a combined $14 million to their campaigns.
In Pennsylvania, heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity Mehmet Oz, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick and former real estate investment firm CEO Carla Sands report that they have lent their campaigns more than $20 million combined.
Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, has poured money into a super PAC backing Vance, while hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin has contributed millions to a super PAC supporting McCormick.
The influx of money into the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries illustrates the importance of the two Senate seats, which could help determine party control of the chamber in November. The highly competitive races for the seats being vacated by Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman and Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey are expected to be among the most expensive contests in this year's midterm elections.
While the money alone may not determine who wins, it can definitely help.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets, a research group that tracks campaign spending, said self-funding has become an increasingly appealing option for wealthy candidates because the lack of limits on personal giving allows them to “fight fire with fire” against deep-pocketed super PACs and dark money groups.
“The massive spending by super PACs and outside groups with anonymous sources means that candidates really can never stop fundraising,” Krumholz said. “They can never have enough money, so self-funded candidates have that built-in advantage. You’re not only raising money to fight an opponent or opponents, you need money to fend off attacks that could come from anywhere, at any moment, in any amount of money."
Some of the less well-known candidates, such as Gibbons and McCormick, have spent some of their fortunes on TV advertising to introduce themselves to voters. More high-profile contenders, like Oz and Vance, have funneled money into ads to remind voters they have the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who remains popular with the Republican base.
In Ohio, Josh Mandel, the state's former treasurer, is the only Republican Senate candidate in the seven-person race who hasn’t given himself a personal loan. But he is backed by Club for Growth Action, the super PAC of the conservative Club for Growth, which has spent more than $4.6 million pillorying his rivals, particularly Vance, ahead of the state's May 3 primary.
For his part, Vance has the support of Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC into which Thiel has invested $13.5 million.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s seven-way Republican Senate primary election on May 17 has been transformed by three wealthy and well-connected candidates who moved from out of state — blue states, no less — to spend their riches on a campaign in the presidential battleground.
McCormick, who resigned from his $22 million-a-year job as CEO of a hedge fund in Connecticut to run for the Senate, grew up the son of a college professor, administrator and president who became the chancellor of the state’s university system. McCormick often talks about working on a Christmas tree farm owned by his family.
But asked last week if someone as wealthy as he is can understand average Pennsylvanians, McCormick told KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh that “I didn’t have anything” growing up.
His campaign later said McCormick had a “humble upbringing” and had been trying to explain that he worked for the wealth he has now.
A rival Republican candidate, Kathy Barnette — who has talked of being the product of rape when her mother was 11 and growing up on a pig farm in a house with no running water or insulation — took aim at what she called the GOP’s habit of electing “the richest person.”
“How has that served us? Picking the richest person, just because they are the richest person,” Barnette said at a forum in late March while sitting just feet away from Oz and McCormick.
Addressing voters, she said: “How many times have you called your elected official who just so happened to be the richest person in the room and asked them to stand up for you? And how many of them over the past two years have stood up for you?”
McCormick and Oz are being boosted by super PACs and the airwaves are blanketed with their TV ads, helping put the men atop polls in the Republican primary. A super PAC supporting McCormick — and attacking Oz — has reported spending more than $13 million so far, powered by $7.5 million from Griffin, the hedge fund billionaire.
All the cash can concern voters, said Terry Casey, a Republican strategist in Ohio.
“The voters, with reason, are legitimately skeptical of candidates spending millions and millions, because who's giving it to them and why?” he said. “So there's an argument that if you're self-funding, maybe you're less tainted, but then it raises the question of, ‘Is this an ego or vanity campaign?’”
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pa.