WASHINGTON -- They have deep pockets and aren't afraid to dig into them.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a trio of wealthy political neophytes has roiled Republican Senate primary races taking place this month, dipping into their personal fortunes to highlight their business backgrounds, cast their opponents as career politicians and draw within striking distance of a victory few saw coming just a few weeks ago.
In Arizona, real estate mogul Wil Cardon is still viewed as having work to do if he's going to catch the prohibitive favorite in the race – six-term Rep. Jeff Flake.
But in Wisconsin, banking executive Eric Hovde is gaining quickly against a former governor and a former congressman. In Missouri, John Brunner, the former CEO and chairman of health and beauty care giant Vi-Jon Inc., has forced his way into a three-way battle featuring a congressman and a former state treasurer that will be decided Tuesday.
Brunner and Hovde have started to draw criticism from national Democrats, reinforcing their rise as serious contenders.
Throw in Connecticut, where one-time World Wrestling Federation CEO Linda McMahon is likely to win the party's nomination for a second time, and four Republican self-funders are capable of advancing to November's general election.
Each election cycle brings its share of candidates who struck it rich in the business world and hope to use their fortunes to help bankroll successful runs for political office. Most are destined to lose. That includes this year's biggest self-funder, David Dewhurst, who spent at least $16.5 million in his loss to Ted Cruz in Tuesday's Texas primary.
The list of U.S. Senate candidates who spent big in 2010 and lost includes McMahon, $50 million; Jeff Greene in Florida, $23.7 million; and Carly Fiorina in California, $5.5 million. The biggest exception was Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who spent $8.7 million in his defeat of Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold.
But this year's crop of self-funders has more going for them than lots of money. They're also able to highlight successful business records to voters hungry for a better economy and resentful of those currently in office because of the economy's slow growth and stubbornly high jobless rate.
A recent ad from Brunner exemplifies the self-funders' strategy as he criticized former state treasurer Sarah Steelman and six-term Rep. Todd Akin.
"While John Brunner was adding over a thousand manufacturing jobs, politicians Todd Akin and Sarah Steelman were manufacturing debt," said the ad.
Veteran GOP strategist Wes Gullett, of Phoenix, said anti-incumbency fever is still the most important factor in this year's primaries, and that's giving Cardon and the other self-funders an opening.
"Since 2008, we've been looking for change. Every election now is about: `Have you been there, and are you part of the problem? Or are you part of the solution?'" said Gullett, who was John McCain's deputy campaign manager in 2000. "Whether you've been there two years or 12 years, you're handicapped when you're running in that environment."
Cardon has lent his campaign more than $6 million so far and had nearly $2.4 million in the bank at the end of June. The slew of television ads he's financed has forced Flake and his allies to spend some of their money attacking Cardon rather than saving those resources for a tough fall campaign against Democrat Richard Carmona.
Sens. McCain and Jon Kyl have endorsed Flake. McCain also voiced concerns that the negative primary in Arizona was hurting the GOP's prospects in the fall. Cardon disputed the notion and called the warnings hypocritical given the ads the two senators have aired in their previous elections.
Cardon has attempted to take advantage of the disdain for Washington by running ads attacking Flake for reversing himself on term limits and for shifting to the right on illegal immigration.
In Missouri, Brunner's rise has come as his campaign has spent nearly $7 million through mid-July – with almost all of that money from the candidate himself. Meanwhile, Akin's and Steelman's spending totaled about $3.7 million.
A similar dynamic is at work in Wisconsin, where Hovde's campaign has spent $3.8 million – almost all of it from the candidate, while former Rep. Mark Neumann and former Gov. Tommy Thompson together have spent about $2.8 million. The money has helped the self-funders frame their races on the airwaves while their opponents were busy building their resources.
Brunner and Hovde have gained the support of tea party groups because of their focus on cutting government spending, but they should not be confused with the tea party firebrands such as Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, who won GOP primaries two years ago but hurt their party's ability to win general elections in Nevada and Delaware, respectively. They hit many of the same talking points that rallied GOP voters two years ago, but with a Chamber of Commerce touch that is more likely to win over moderates and independents.
The sizable investments the self-funding candidates are making raise the question of whether they've tilted the playing field with their wealth and whether they're essentially trying to buy an election. Hovde bristles at the question.
"I'm taking my hard-earned money because I care about my country passionately and I'm worried it's going to go through a financial collapse. And I'm being criticized for making a big investment that's a giant negative return for me?" Hovde said.
All of the big self-funders in this year's Senate races are participating in competitive GOP primaries while the top Democratic candidates in those states are generally running uncontested and can save their resources for the fall.
That dynamic is generally improving the prospects for those Democratic candidates by exposing some major vulnerabilities, said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"It's resulting in some very vicious primaries developing around the country," Canter said.
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said hard-fought primaries aren't a problem.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.