Independents Have Tough Time Raising Campaign Funds

One of the trend lines we’ve been watching this election cycle is the increasing number of Republicans who have left the party—voluntarily or involuntarily—and are running as independents this year.

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Three important ex-Republican independents will be on the ballot Tuesday in Florida, Alaska and Rhode Island.

And just by looking at campaign finance records, we can get a sense of just how difficult it can be to launch an independent campaign once you’ve been cut off from the party apparatus and, perhaps more importantly, its biggest political donors.

“A candidate who leaves his or her party faces the peril of alienating a number of partisan donors,” says David Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.

The numbers bear that out: Candidates are raising much less campaign cashthis year than they did in their last campaigns. And that’s despite the fact that we’re in an election year that has seen much more money raised and spent overall. That shows the price they pay for leaving their party.

Start with Florida Senate candidate Charlie Crist. As the Republican governor of Florida, Crist contemplated coming to Washington as the state’s senator, but he didn’t count on the emergence of conservative Tea Party-backed Marco Rubio. After assessing his chances against Rubio in the Republican primary, Crist decided to chance it and run in the general election as an independent—hoping to hold the political middle ground between Rubio and a Democratic nominee.

So far this cycle, Crist has raised more than $13 million dollars and spent nearly as much, leaving him with $536,000 cash on hand as of Oct. 13. Those numbers put Crist way behind Rubio, who has raised $18.2 million, spent $15.8 million and has $2.45 million on hand.

Crist has fallen way behind the fundraising pace he set in his 2006 gubernatorial campaign as a Republican, in which he raised $19.9 million. So it would appear that running as an independent cost Crist about $7 million in lost contributions.

In Alaska, incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski decided to face her Tea Party-backed opponent in the GOP primary—and lost. She didn’t give up her quest for reelection and entered the general election as a write-in independent candidate. She has raised more than $4 million so far and spent close to $3.5 million, leaving her with over $700,000 in cash on hand as of Oct. 13.

Her total raised blows away that of her Republican opponent, Joe Miller, who has raised less than $2 million. But even so, Murkowski raised much less than she did back in 2004, when she hauled in $5.7 million. For Murkowski, it would appear, running as an independent cost her roughly $1.7 million in lost contributions.

What’s most interesting is how Murkowski has raised her money, she’s gone to the Washington-insider money source—political action committees (PACs). Murkowski has taken fully 50 percent of her campaign contributions from PACs this cycle, up dramatically from her last campaign, when she relied on PACs for only 35 percent of her campaign financing. Miller, by stark contrast, has received only 6 percent of his campaign cash from PACs.

Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report
Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report

And look at Rhode Island, where former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee is running for governor. Chafee was defeated for re-election to his Senate seat in 2006 by a Democrat and supported President Obama’s Democratic campaign for President in 2008. Now, he’s running for governor as an independent.

Chafee has been in the news this week, as President Obamareturned the favor of his 2008 endorsement by declining to endorse Chafee’s Democratic opponent, Frank Caprio, prompting an angry Caprio to say that Obama could take his endorsement and “shove it.”

So how’s Chafee’s independent bid faring in the money race? Not as well as his losing 2006 Senate bid, that’s for sure.

According to the Rhode Island Board of Elections, Chafee has raised $2,396,787—contributing $1.61 million from his own personal fortune. That's much less than he raised in the 2006 cycle, when he ran unsuccessfully for Senate. That year, he raised $5.422 million (he coughed up $1.13 million of his own money that year, too). So it looks like running as an independent cost Chafee roughly $3 million.

There’s one key to all this—the campaign finance experts at the Center for Responsive Politics point out that the fundraising rules from Senate and gubernatorial campaigns are different and can vary state by state, making comparisons difficult between money raised in Senate campaigns and money raised in bids for the governor’s mansion.

Still the lesson is clear—if you want to run for office as an independent, you’d better be prepared to do it on the cheap.