A Gambling Man

Blair Hull thinks he has found the formula for how to buy a Senate seat

As he wound up his fifteen-minute stump speech on health care, Blair Hull, a first-time Democratic senatorial candidate from Illinois, mentioned offhandedly to his audience of seniors, assembled in the town of Orland Hills for a Thanksgiving luncheon, "If elected, I will not accept a salary or a pension." Hull continued talking—unaware, it appeared, of the audible gasp that greeted this news. An elderly woman seated beside me turned to me in disbelief and then adjusted her hearing aid and returned her attention to Hull with what seemed like renewed concentration. Most people would treat the issue of forgoing a salary and retirement plan with considerably more gravity than Hull. Most politicians would do so at the beginning of a stump speech, not the end. The issue was an afterthought to Hull, and the episode was characteristic of one of this year's most noteworthy campaigns.

Blair Hull can afford to be cavalier about a senator's $158,000 salary, because he is the richest person ever to seek office in Illinois. He has a larger staff than any of his competitors. He pays his staffers more than any of the nine Democratic presidential candidates pay theirs. And there is a very good chance that he will spend more just on Illinois's March 16 Democratic primary than all but one or two of the Democratic presidential hopefuls will spend nationwide throughout the campaign. When I joined him for a few days in November, Hull was in the midst of the most expensive campaign in Illinois history, having pledged to spend as much as $40 million in pursuit of the seat being vacated by the Republican Peter Fitzgerald.

Hull's has all the trappings of a state-of-the-art campaign: meetups, a blog, and a timeshare in a corporate jet, not to mention a red, white, and blue "Hull-on-Wheels" RV that is featured prominently in his television commercials and has become a rolling symbol of the campaign. And at least in theory Hull, who is sixty-one, is a formidable candidate: as a former high school teacher, union worker, and board member of NARAL, he appeals to important Democratic constituencies; as the lone veteran in the field, he can oppose the war in Iraq unquestioned. His unusual life story, too, sets Hull apart from the drab lawyers, state representatives, and political scions who normally pursue office in Illinois, though in fact he is less flamboyant than his campaign and personal history suggest.

Trained in mathematics and computer science, Hull became part of a notorious card-counting ring that operated in Nevada in the 1970s. He beat the odds—or, rather, beat the house by shifting the odds in his favor—by devising intricate mathematical formulas that called for a skilled team of card counters to help determine when and how to bet in blackjack. The team consistently turned a profit until one member blew its cover by publishing a self-aggrandizing tell-all book, The Big Player. Hull quit blackjack with $25,000 and a habit of citing the economist William F. Sharpe to anyone who questioned his wisdom in playing cards: "Investing is the sacrifice of current consumption for expected future gain; gambling is the sacrifice of current consumption for expected future loss." Hull always expected future gain. As if to underscore his analytical rigor, he used his winnings to found Hull Trading Co., a computerized options firm that earned him $340 million—and the means to run for the Senate—when Goldman Sachs bought it, in 1999.

Hull's candidacy illustrates an increasingly prominent phenomenon: the attempt of rich unknowns to buy their way into major public office. As the cost of campaigns continues to soar, these people have become more important to cash-strapped political parties. Over the past decade a succession of them have spent eye-popping sums: Michael Huffington ($30 million), Al Checchi ($40 million), Jon Corzine ($63 million), Michael Bloomberg ($69 million), and Tony Sanchez ($62 million), to name only a few. These days it is customary in political circles to lament that a Senate seat or a governor's mansion is attainable by the highest bidder. But that really isn't true. For all the advantages that accrue to a wealthy candidate, recent history suggests that it still takes more than money to carry a race. Of those five candidates only Corzine and Bloomberg won—and narrowly. As the neophyte in a field of experienced and politically connected candidates, Hull has finally found a challenge worthy of his quantitative skills, and he intends to apply them literally. His media strategist, Anita Dunn, says, "Blair believes he can come up with an algorithm for winning campaigns."

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."

Hull, too, has assiduously cultivated the grass roots—particularly downstate, where he is counting on outperforming his Chicago-based competitors in the primary. Given that at least six other candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, the winner should need only 25 to 30 percent of the vote. Though the millions Hull has spent to date have yet to make him the front-runner, his campaign is showing reasonable progress in the difficult task of turning a virtual unknown into a serious prospect for the state's 12 million citizens. Hull has already campaigned full time for more than a year, blanketing the state with television ads, joining parades in the "Hull-on-Wheels" RV, and giving endless talks in small towns similar to Orland Hills. Like other candidates, Hull supports drug reimportation from Canada. He recently took a bus trip to Windsor, Ontario, with seniors who were buying prescription drugs. Unlike other candidates, he paid for the bus, the hotel rooms, and even the doctors' visits. And just as Corzine did, he has spent an astonishing amount of money courting state officials—donating to Rod Blagojevich's successful 2002 campaign for governor of Illinois, for instance, a total of $459,000 in loans, cash, and the use of his jet.

During his campaign Corzine was relentlessly criticized by the media for spending so exorbitantly—treatment that Hull, too, can expect. But rather than assume a defensive crouch, he is trying to spin this to his advantage, limiting voter donations to $100 and stressing that his fortune frees him from special-interest obligations, leaving him beholden only to the voters of Illinois.

It turns out that Hull is that rare breed of candidate who will give an honest assessment of his chances. "At the outset," he told me, "I estimated there was about a ten percent probability" of winning. But by the time he was six months into his campaign, Hull's name recognition and poll support had risen to the point where, he said, "it is clearly above that—and rising." He emphasized his continued willingness to bet millions of dollars that he can win.

Hull is most animated by those aspects of campaigning that can be quantified and formulated. "Politics is very unpredictable," he told me. "More so than blackjack." I asked if he really could write an algorithm to help win the election. His face lit up, and his press secretary winced. "Sure!" he replied. He reached for my notebook and began scribbling as he spoke: "You'd create a persuasion model based on canvassing that says 'the probability of voting for Hull is ...' plus some variable on ethnicity ... with a positive coefficient on age, a negative coefficient on wealth, and that gives us an equation ..." Sure enough, a lengthy equation unfolded across the page that to my untrained eye looked like part of the human genetic code:

Probability = 1/(1 + exp (−1 × (−3.9659056 + (General Election Weight × 1.92380219) + (Re-Expressed Population Density × .00007547) + (Re-Expressed Age × .01947370) + (Total Primaries Voted × −.60288595) + (% Neighborhood Ethnicity × −.00717530))))

Hull looked pleased. "That's the kind of innovation I will bring to problems in the United States Senate."

What Hull's algorithm did not include is the X-factor associated with wealthy novices: if you have any unpleasant characteristic, your money will exaggerate it. When Elliott Close, a South Carolina textile heir, ran for the Senate in 1996, his consultants thought it politically unwise for him to drive a fancy foreign car. Close dutifully swapped it for a Cadillac. Not long afterward he was ticketed for speeding, and a subsequent newspaper account emphasized his expensive choice of automobile. Exasperated, Close bought a Buick and was said to carry the newspaper clipping in his wallet for the remainder of the campaign. Other examples are not quite as harmless. The Republican businessman Michael Huffington's Senate campaign in California, in 1994, featured a get-tough-on-immigration platform unveiled in the final weeks of the campaign. A few days after the announcement the Los Angeles Times reported that Huffington employed an illegal alien as a nanny. Like Close, Huffington lost his election.

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. This reality can be daunting.

Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence that Illinois voters will accept a candidate who draws on his own fortune to run for office. They have already elected one: Peter Fitzgerald, who in 1998 spent $14 million of his personal fortune of $40 million to win the seat Hull wants. But after Hull started campaigning, Fitzgerald announced that he would not seek re-election. Spending part of a fortune to become a senator was one thing; going through the rest of it to remain one, apparently, was another.