The nation's Schadenfreude in recent weeks was focussed on the Martha Stewart trial. Voters in Illinois got a local alternative to that story, however, with Blair Hull's extravagant quest for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Hull's campaign followed a trajectory more dramatic than Howard Dean's, with big leads in the polls preceding what the Chicago Tribune called "the most inglorious campaign implosion in Illinois political history."
Hull finished a distant third in Tuesday's voting, with barely 10% of the vote. His campaign was financed, lavishly, from the personal fortune Hull made as the founder of an options firm he sold to Goldman Sachs for $340 million in 1999. Hull spent at least $29 million on the campaign; the Tribune estimates he paid $260 for each vote he received.
Hull's undoing was a story that broke less than a month before the primary. His ex-wife had sought an order of protection against him during their divorce in 1998. Hull tried to keep the divorce records sealed, but pressure from journalists and opposing candidates forced him to release them. The papers revealed that his ex-wife alleged that Hull had threatened her life, and that a physical altercation between them had led to his arrest for battery, though no charges were filed.
An established politician with a reputation and a track record might have survived such publicity. But Hull was a political novice. Not only had he never run for office before 2004, he hadn't bothered to vote for years at time. An article by Joshua Green on Hull, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly as his candidacy was cresting, was prescient: "Self-financed candidates are usually facing media scrutiny for the first time. They are therefore more susceptible to damaging revelations: a drunk-driving arrest, a history of domestic violence, an illegal nanny."
The ubiquitous Hull television ads had given him far better name recognition than his obscure opponents. But the footage of him chartering a bus to take Illinois senior citizens to Canada for cheaper prescription drugs than they could buy in the U.S. did him no good once the divorce story broke. Voters now knew one thing about Hull that didn't come from his ads, and it made even the least credulous suspect that the virtues and earnestness on display in the paid spots were contrived.
It's no longer novel when a zillionaire runs for high office. Nor is it big news when one spends millions of his own money and loses. Californians remember Michael Huffington's Senate race in 1994 and Al Checchi's failed campaign for the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But, according to Green, the Hull campaign had astutely learned the lessons of such defeats, and modeled itself on successes like Jon Corzine's pursuit of a New Jersey Senate seat, or Mark Warner's election as Virginia's governor.
Instead of just buying ads, Hull spent millions connecting directly with voters and politicians. What Hull couldn't buy was a rationale for running for office. Green wrote that he "seemed driven more by a general sense of good intention than any specific passion for policy," and that Hull's explanation of his motives and goals "all sounds slightly canned, like a foreigner who has taught himself English by watching C-SPAN."
It's hard to argue with the 90% of Illinois Democrats who decided the U.S. Senate could get along fine without Blair Hull's presence for the next six years. But it is possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for Mr. Hull walking away from the wreckage of his campaign. His fortune is only slightly diminished, but he spent all that money getting famous in the most lamentable ways.
This country used to have political parties, and even political machines, that vetted candidates. Plenty of dim bulbs and crooks got through the process, but at least it was more rigorous than a rich guy looking in the mirror and saying, "You would make a terrific Senator." The sort of smoke-filled rooms that would have considered the possibility of a Hull candidacy, demanded to know any facts about his private life that might ruin an election, and arrived at a cold-eyed decision without any public knowledge or involvementthose rooms are as extinct as the dodo.
Hull's problem was that political pros are no longer county chairmen with abiding institutional interests to advance and protect. Instead, freelance consultants reign supreme. As Green noted, Hull "has a larger staff than any of his competitors. He pays his staffers more than any of the nine Democratic presidential candidates pay theirs." What hired campaign advisor would be so indifferent to his own career, so devoted to a stranger, that he would place a rich client's reputation ahead of his own mortgage payments?
During his campaign Hull tried to argue that his wealth was a political virtue, securing his independence from the "special interests." But as Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The United States of Ambition, the problem with all these brave politicians who boast of how they don't owe anybody anything is that nobody owes anything to them, either. No one owed it to Blair Hull to insist that his personal life should be scrutinized before, not during, a very public political campaign.
After the divorce story broke, Blair Hull posted a message on his campaign website: "If voters want to judge me solely on the basis of my divorce, I'm willing to allow the chips to fall where they may. However, what voters tell me they want this election to be about is who has the independence to make health care more affordable, drive down the costs of prescription drugs, get our economy moving and create jobs." Jay Gatsby realized, finally, that none of those people at his parties were his friendsthey were just there for the food, the drinks and the thrills. Blair Hull now knows that only a few of those earnest voters who spoke to him were really interested in his gold-plated policy seminar. They wanted a tabloid story, and he became it.