Since at least the heyday of the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, rich hopefuls have sought to use their bank accounts as a shortcut to elective office. But by the mid-1990s this practice seemed dubious. Ross Perot spent $72 million in a failed 1992 bid for the White House, Steve Forbes $33 million fruitlessly pursuing the 1996 Republican nomination. Also in 1996 a high-profile group of rich senatorial aspirants—Guy Millner (Georgia), Mark Warner (Virginia), Tom Strickland (Colorado), Tom Bruggere (Oregon), Walt Minnick (Idaho), and Elliott Close (South Carolina)—all lost their respective races. "A lot of people after '96 said this is proof that self-funding candidates can't win," says Steve Jarding, who was a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time.
As a species, such candidates do have certain intrinsic disadvantages. Many are successful businessmen, whose hands-on style doesn't benefit them in their new role as candidates. The tendency to micromanage despite a lack of expertise—call it the Steinbrenner Temptation—often thwarts success. Other newcomers cannot adapt to the unfamiliar folkways of politics. As compelling as a business leader may sound when promising to apply his experience to the government, the skills prized in the business world—originality of thought, the ability to spot problems others don't see—do not necessarily translate to the world of politics, with its particular issues, concerns, and, not least, subjects to avoid. Connecting with average people, a crucial ability, can also be difficult for business leaders and heirs.
A reserved but affable man who bears a passing resemblance to the late character actor J. T. Walsh, Hull evinces none of the egotism common in multimillionaires pursuing office (and no one who runs for the Senate these days, it seems, is anything less than a millionaire). But neither does he show any appetite for politics. Ever the literal-minded mathematician, he is flummoxed by political euphemism and reluctant to employ it, and he seems driven more by a general sense of good intention than any specific passion for policy. Hull is attempting to master policy positions the same way he taught himself blackjack, by studying flash cards, but he admitted that he hadn't bothered with flash cards for weeks. Nor does he seem to relish public speaking. As we traveled across Illinois, while he touted his health-care plan, Hull could muster only a willed enthusiasm. However energetically he employs the standard litany expected of today's political challengers—"an independent fighter," "won't succumb to special interests," will "shine a light on Washington's problems"—it all sounds slightly canned, like a foreigner who has taught himself English by watching C-SPAN.
But Hull's campaign does demonstrate a shrewd understanding of what it takes to buy a Senate seat. In the past few years Corzine and Warner (this time running for Virginia governor) got elected, laying out a strategy that Hull's campaign has largely adopted. Unlike Checchi and Huffington, Corzine went beyond television advertising to build his base of support. "Any self-funded candidate who relies on mass media to carry his message in the absence of creating a warm and lasting connection with voters is going to lose," Steve DeMicco, who managed Corzine's campaign, warns. Corzine courted key state officials and built an intricate grassroots network well in advance of the election. (Hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and similar organizations didn't hurt either.) And he largely resisted the urge to overrule his advisers, though he did refuse the suggestion that he shave his beard. "For the most part," DeMicco says, "he knew what he didn't know."