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Op-Ed: The trap set for self-funding Republicans

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Elected officials aren't just powerful for the offices they win. They are leaders of their own political enterprises, too. They have donors, volunteers, supporters, access to the news media and existing recognition from their previous campaigns. The existence of these enterprises helps make for high re-election rates among incumbents.

But when a party lacks a strong bench of elected officials ready to move up to statewide office, as is the case in states like California and New York today, the result is a tremendous institutional bias in favor of finding a "self-funding" candidate for governor and down-ticket statewide offices. The problem with this shortcut is that personal funds often become a substitute for the kind of political enterprise that wins elections.

Self-funding candidates who can tap into personal fortunes to bankroll their campaigns, or at least launch themselves originally, as Mitt Romney did in 2008, can be very appealing. Such candidates have usually succeeded earlier in the business world. People like the idea of a campaign that will have the resources necessary to reach large numbers of voters. And of course, consultants like the idea of invoices that get paid on time.

Yet there is a trap awaiting wealthy Republican candidates, and over the last decade Democrats have turned tearing these candidates down into a science. The latest to suffer from the plans in this playbook was Romney.

President Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, defined "caring" as one of six qualities candidates must demonstrate to maintain voter support. In "The Righteous Mind," psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates the importance of moral intuitions in reasoning, and the primacy of care as a moral foundation, especially among people who are in the ideological center and left. And it is this quality that Democrats have become experts at taking away from wealthy Republican candidates like Romney, 2010 California candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, and others.

The relentless attacks on Romney's history at Bain Capital were not aimed so much at tearing down Wall Street and playing to the Democrat base as at proving that Romney is "not like us" and "doesn't care" about everyday people.

Two years earlier, the same strategy was employed against Whitman. She was pounded for firing a Latina housekeeper. The message was clear: Whitman didn't care about her poor Latina housekeeper -- and besides, she has

a housekeeper, so how much can she really care about the rest of us?

And history has shown that a wealthy candidate's generous charitable contributions provide little cover. Mitt and Ann Romney donated an astonishing $4 million to charities in 2011 alone, or 29 percent of their $13 million in income for that year.

One theory to explain this disconnect is that a wealthy person writing checks to charity does not involve any perceived sacrifice -- a rich guy wrote a check and got a tax deduction, big deal. Likewise, citing large charitable contributions only reinforces the message the candidate is very wealthy, and therefore someone with whom it is more difficult to identify.

In challenging economic times, Republican business candidates have pointed to the number of jobs created by their business activities as proof of their qualifications on economic issues. Romney cited the more than 100,000 jobs created by companies backed by Bain Capital during his tenure. Yet he was given little credit for this, either, especially by critical centrist voters in battleground states like Ohio and swing districts.

Wealthy Republican candidates, especially those planning to finance their own campaigns from their personal fortunes, need to anticipate an opposition that will aim to prove they do not care about the average citizen struggling to make ends meet.

Ron Nehring is the immediate past chairman of the California Republican Party.

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