Long-shot Republican candidates spend millions on their own campaigns

<span>Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two wealthy Republicans running long-shot campaigns for president have qualified for the first GOP debate – even as they remain their own top donors.

The candidates, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota and former software company executive, have each contributed more than $10m to their own campaigns.

Burgum, 67, has twice donated to himself: once in March, months before he officially joined the race, and again in June, a couple weeks after he announced his candidacy, according to campaign finance reports.

First-time politician Ramaswamy, 37, has loaned himself about $15m and directly given hundreds of thousands of dollars more, FEC filings show. Just around $3.2m – about 17% – of the $19.1m his campaign had raised as of June came from donors other than himself.

“This is a luxury expense, essentially,” said Jason Seawright, a political science professor at Northwestern University and a co-author of the book Billionaires and Stealth Politics. For billionaires, spending millions of dollars to achieve whatever goal – whether that be increasing their name recognition or getting on the debate stage – isn’t enough to change their lifestyle, he said.

Ramaswamy defended financing his own campaign in an interview with Politico where he bashed political fundraisers for pocketing a portion of the money they raise. “Why should they monopolize political fundraising? They shouldn’t,” Ramaswamy told Politico. His campaign earlier said Ramswamy was prepared to spend $100m on the race.

Both Ramaswamy and Burgum resorted to offering donors cash incentives in order to meet the threshold and secure their spots on the debate stage.

Burgum offered the first 50,000 people to donate at least $1 to his campaign a $20 gift card, and Ramaswamy promised to give people a 10% commission on any funds they raised for his campaign.

Ramaswamy and Burgum’s donor incentives are “unique in the details, but it’s not unique in general”, said Seawright. “The reality is that people who have a huge amount of money consistently find ways to work around the rules.”

According to the Federal Elections Commission, a candidate’s personal funds are not subject to the limitations for individual contributions.

Donald Trump spent $66m on his first campaign, campaign finance records show. “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors,” Trump said when he announced his candidacy. “I don’t care. I’m really rich.”

TV doctor Mehmet Oz, who lost the 2022 race for Senate in Pennsylvania, funded more than half his campaign by himself, according to the nonprofit OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign finance and lobbying.

And Mike Bloomberg, a latecomer to the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, famously spent more than $1bn in four months to win only one caucus: American Samoa, which did not participate in the general election because it is a US territory.

There’s a precedent of US campaign finance laws changing overtime to essentially permit wealthy individuals to pour unlimited sums of money into political campaigns, such as with the emergence of super Pacs following the landmark Citizens United supreme court decision that lifted restrictions on campaign giving, said Seawright.

“The concern we ought to have is not as much about, ‘How are we going to draw the rules to keep unbelievable fortunes out of politics?’ You can’t,” said Seawright. “The concern you ought have to have is about the fact that our economy is generating these unbelievable fortunes that are inevitably corrupting our politics.”

Analysts are predicting that the 2024 Republican primary will cost more than $1bn , and early projections show this election cycle could be the most expensive yet, breaking the record set in 2020.

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