CHICAGO – An open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois has attracted a millionaires club of candidates. Seven of the 15 Republicans and Democrats on the ballot are millionaires, most of them with little or no political experience but a willingness to spend plenty of their own money to join the elite club of 100.
The sheer number of millionaires in the Illinois race is once more raising the question of whether the Senate has become just another notch on the belt for the ultra-wealthy.
"I think it is a vanity issue," said Steven Weiss, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (search). "Wealthy individuals have often been very successful in business and possess the confidence, an abundance of confidence, that leads them to believe they can be very successful in politics."
The primaries are next Tuesday. The candidates are competing for a seat being vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald (search), who himself won in 1998 by pouring $14.6 million of his banking fortune into unseating Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (search).
This time, the financial stakes are higher: Blair Hull (search), a Democrat who parlayed $25,000 in blackjack winnings into a commodities trading company he sold for $531 million, has vowed to spend as much as $40 million of his own money in his first run for public office.
"That makes Fitzgerald seem like a pauper," said former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (search), a Republican who decided not to run for the Senate despite lobbying from the Bush administration.
Among Hull's opponents are a dairy owner whose name is plastered on milk bottles, an investment banker-turned-teacher who has already spent millions on his own campaign, and a doctor and businessman who pledged to do the same if he wins the primary.
In other big-spending races in the past few years, New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine (search) turned $60 million of his Wall Street earnings into a Senate victory in 2000, and Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York in 2001 after spending $73 million of his own money on the race.
Hull has tried to turn his extraordinary wealth - estimated between $132 million and $444 million - into an advantage with voters, reminding them that his riches mean he is not beholden to any donor.
"You can't fight against the system if you're taking money from special interests out of one hand and then you're fighting against them on the other," Hull said.
Hull's heavy spending - he has pumped nearly $29 million into his campaign so far - helped kick in a new federal campaign finance provision dubbed the Millionaires' Amendment that increases the amount candidates can raise from individuals when they run against self-financed opponents.
Spending by Jack Ryan (search), the former investment banker and teacher worth between $38 million and $96 million, put the amendment in play for his Republican opponents as well.
Ryan spent $2.3 million on his campaign by mid-February. He said that his fortune gave him a head start but that he now has about 2,000 volunteers and has begun raising substantial amounts from outside sources.
"So I think those are objective indications this campaign transcends me: the polls, the volunteers, the money we're raising," he said.
Both Hull and Ryan have spent much of their money blanketing television with ads that stress their commitment to public service. The tactic seems to have worked for Ryan - recent polls showed him with a wide lead over his GOP rivals.
Hull took an early lead in the polls. But it disappeared as his rivals began advertising and after the release of his divorce file, which disclosed that he struck his ex-wife on the leg and allegedly threatened to kill her. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released Tuesday showed Hull had slipped to third place, behind two non-millionaires.
Hull has taken out full-page newspaper ads and run a television commercial to defend himself against the abuse charges. He has accused special interests and "insiders" of orchestrating attacks on him.
Trailing him are Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas (search), who has a net worth with her husband of between $6 million and $13 million, and health care executive Joyce Washington, worth between $1 million and $5 million.
On the Republican side, dairy owner Jim Oberweis has taken heat for running a series of TV commercials for his business while refraining from running political ads. His campaign logo replaces the "i" in his last name with an ice cream cone.
Opponents are quick to point out that Hull and Ryan often come off better in their slick commercials than they have in debates and campaign events.
"I don't begrudge extraordinarily wealthy people spending their money," said Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama (search), who led the field in Tuesday's poll.
"What I do know, though, is although you can buy television time, you can't buy a track record and you can't buy the experience I think is necessary to hit the ground running when you get to the United States Senate."