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Cost of name recognition

The Baltimore Sun

Josh Rales, the wealthy businessman-turned-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, seems to be all over the airwaves with those wonky, earnest television ads he is using to introduce himself and his self-financed campaign to voters.

In fact, he is. In the past two months, Maryland viewers have seen his bespectacled face nearly 4,000 times, almost five times as often as U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of the front-runners, according to a national political media research firm.

TNS Media International/CMAG of Northern Virginia found that Rales has spent more money on television advertisements - $5.4 million as of yesterday - than any other Senate primary candidate in the nation this year.

But will all this money spent on an underdog campaign produce a victory for a political newcomer who was virtually unknown just two months ago? Is it simply an exercise in self-promotion? Or is it a down payment toward a future campaign?

"The Rales campaign - win, lose or draw - his investment is probably enough that he's probably going to make a name for himself in Maryland politics," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media. "If he doesn't win this time, he'll be set up for something else. The investment is not necessarily a bad one if he's got other plans.

"If it's a one-and-done situation, it's an awfully big birthday present to yourself."

The biggest contributor, by far, to the Rales campaign is Josh Rales himself.

As of Aug. 17, he had donated $5.15 million of his own money, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Cardin had raised $4.8 million through the end of June. Former congressman and national NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume, who polls show is in a tight race with Cardin for the seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, had raised less than $1 million by that time.

Rales is among the biggest self-financiers in the nation this election cycle. Only a few Senate wannabes - Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts, Vermont Republican Richard E. Tarrant and Arizona Democrat Jim Pederson - have given their campaigns more. Incumbent Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin - a third-term Democrat - has also given his campaign more than $5 million.

Rales made his fortune - reported as up to $120 million in net worth and salary in documents he filed with the U.S. Senate this year - in real estate development and has given millions to charities. He says he can easily afford to pour a chunk of his assets into even the most uphill effort. His family won't suffer, he says, nor will his philanthropy.

"I'm not going to be out there with a tin cup when this is over," he said during a recent campaign stop. "It's not going to put a dent in my pocketbook. It's going to give me a chance to communicate with the people of Maryland."

He bristles at any suggestion that he is trying to buy a Senate seat. He insists it can't be done.

There are a few examples of success in that arena, particularly among people who weren't well-known in some way before they ran. In 2000, retired investment banker Jon Corzine, a political novice, famously spent $63 million of his own money to win a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey.

But many more have failed. In 2004, 14 people tried to win Senate seats by spending more than $1 million of their own money. They all lost. In Illinois, financier Blair Hull spent $28.6 million of his own money but lost the Democratic primary that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money on elections. Maryland state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and former Wall Street junk bond trader, spent nearly $1.6 million in his unsuccessful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski two years ago, according to the center.

"Self-financed candidates tend to lose," said Massie Ritsch, the center's communications director. "As investments go, financing your own political campaign is a terrible investment. On some level you have to question someone's business sense when you look at the track record. But there are exceptions."

Most self-financed candidates are challengers, and in Congress challengers typically lose, he said. In 2004, 98 percent of House incumbents won re-election; 96 percent of incumbents were returned to the Senate, he said.

Rales - whose campaign ads have focused on education, health care and energy policy and his impatience with the rising toll of the Iraq war - said his first strategy has been to announce his presence to voters who might not know him. On the campaign trail, it is clear that people recognize him from his ubiquitous ads.

He says voters are warming up to him, and now he needs to convert them into Rales voters.

Rales was until recently a Republican who donated in 2003 to President Bush's re-election effort and has never before run for elective office. Like many candidates this year, he is trying to portray himself as being from outside a broken political system. He said he is taking an expensive route because he can't get the media attention received by his better-known opponents.

Television, he said, is the only way he has to reach the masses.

"The vibrancy of our democracy really depends on people that have new voices being invited into the process," he said yesterday.

He says his internal polls show him making progress.

One sign of life came this week: Zogby International, which conducts polls with The Wall Street Journal online edition, included Rales in a poll of the Maryland Senate race released yesterday. The survey shows that, like Cardin and Mfume in heavily Democratic Maryland, Rales would defeat the presumed Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. In Zogby's July poll, the first in which the Montgomery County businessman was included, Rales lost a head-to-head match with Steele.

Fritz Wenzel, a spokesman for Zogby, said their poll included candidates the firm determined "had some sort of chance" in the race. "Clearly he has some viability," Wenzel said of Rales. "Rales shows he's in the middle of the race."

Keith Haller, whose Bethesda firm conducts polls for The Sun, said he would expect Rales to be making some headway. The questions are how much and whether he is running out of time to reach voters. The primary is two weeks from today.

"Anybody spending that kind of money with that many undecideds, you are going to move numbers," Haller said. "It doesn't put you neck and neck with Cardin and Mfume. Right now he's still not reached the threshold of credibility. A lot of people still believe it's a two-way race."

Still, Haller said, "you've got to give him credit because he moved when the others were planning."

Allan J. Lichtman, an American University history professor who is among 19 Democrats vying for the open Senate seat, said Rales' strategy isn't going to work. "Rales thinks he can buy everything," Lichtman said recently. "The voters aren't going to love you just because you're spending money. He has no chance in a Democratic primary."

Rales is certainly more recognizable than he was two months ago when his first ad aired, which could lay the groundwork for future political office. But he insists his eyes are on the prize up for grabs on Sept. 12 - not on anything beyond that.

"My focus is ... to give people an option, somebody who's different," he said. "It's the system that's broken, and Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume are part of the system."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

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