GOP recruits millionaires to replace those who fly the coop

NEW YORK — Republicans are hoping to retake control of Congress by recruiting right-wing millionaires to run for office in districts now represented by pro-labor and antiwar representatives elected in 2006.

Fearful of a historic shift in the balance of forces that could be looming on the horizon, the GOP feels that by running millionaires and billionaires for Congress it can bypass the hard work of fund-raising and jump into early campaigns to defeat progressives who were elected last time around.

Super-rich candidates are already running in more than a dozen districts now represented by liberal Democrats finishing their first term, a time when freshman lawmakers are usually considered most vulnerable. A review of required campaign finance disclosure reports shows that these new right-wing candidates have already invested $1 million and sometimes more of their own money in their campaigns.

Alexander Treadwell, the grandson of one of the founders of General Electric, has told Republican leaders here that he can spend as much as $3 million of his own money to unseat Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a first-term Democrat elected in 2006 when she campaigned against the war in Iraq. The district involved is the 20th Congressional District (CD), which includes the state capital Albany.

“We have been very fortunate in our recruiting efforts,” Ken Spain, a member of the Republican House campaign committee, recently bragged to The New York Times. He described the rich right-wingers as being “in position to run strong, well-financed grassroots campaigns in some of our top targeted districts.”

Karen Ackerman, political action director of the AFL-CIO, said the recruitment of millionaires by the GOP “actually shows the financial weaknesses that Republicans have since they were kicked out of their controlling positions in 2006.”

“This is a big change,” she said, “because they have always, even in 2006, been able to outspend Democrats.” A review of campaign fundraising records shows that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has $29 million at its disposal while the Republican counterpart has only $2.5 million. In 2006 Republicans raised $40 million more than Democrats.

Hence the GOP strategy of hunting for wealthy candidates with deep pockets.

An example of how the GOP operates unfolded in Illinois this year. The Republicans have decided to put Rep. Melissa Bean, a two-term centrist Democrat representing the 8th CD, on its hit list. Steve Greenberg, the owner of Herr’s Pacific, an art supply chain store, had been thinking of challenging Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat. Illinois Republicans talked him out of doing that, arguing that he could win the congressional race against Bean. The plan worked. Greenberg is now running and publicly saying he will spend as many of his millions as it takes to defeat her.

Other very wealthy right-wingers who have been courted by the GOP to run for Congress include James Oberweis, an Illinois dairy billionaire; Mike Erickson, an Oregon billionaire who is running against Darlene Hooley; and Ed Tinsley, the restaurant franchise billionaire, who is running for Congress in New Mexico.

A spokesman for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, warned that the push for millionaire candidates is “dangerous because, even if they don’t win, they have money that can force progressives to spend time and money holding onto seats rather than using those resources to make the new gains that have to be made.”

A case in point was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to the 23rd CD in Texas where she hosted a fund-raising effort for Ciro Rodriguez, an incumbent who is being challenged by billionaire Francisco Canseco.

jwojcik @pww.org