KINGSTON, N.Y. — Wealthy people who run for public office typically stick to the same basic blueprint: Plow millions of their personal fortunes into the campaign. Hire big-name consultants. Flood the TV airwaves with ads.
Sean Eldridge is making all of that look quaint. The 27-year-old husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has turned his congressional campaign for New York’s 19th District into a multimillion-dollar start-up — a gambit that veteran election watchers say is as unique as it is brazen.
It has unfolded in rapid-fire sequence. After Eldridge decided he wanted to run for office, he and Hughes in 2011 bought the first of two luxurious homes in the Hudson Valley region. Soon after, Eldridge set up a venture capital firm, Hudson River Ventures, that has provided millions in loans and equity lines to local companies. And now the first-time candidate, who’s running his first business, is touting the jobs he’s created in the blue-collar district.
“I know firsthand what it takes to support small businesses and create good jobs,” reads one pamphlet his campaign is plastering throughout the area.
Like no other 2014 candidate, Eldridge is testing the limits of dollars and cents to secure a seat in the House of Representatives. The Democrat is tapping Hughes’s vast wealth — estimated at $700 million — to build an elaborate campaign apparatus in a district where he remains a stranger to many. In addition to his firm’s investments, Eldridge has spent more than $700,000 on his campaign, and that figure is sure to rise exponentially because he’s promised to match each contribution he receives, dollar for dollar.
His efforts are all the more striking in contrast with incumbent GOP Rep. Chris Gibson, a 49-year-old decorated war veteran and former college professor who lives in the same middle-class neighborhood where he grew up. Gibson’s financial disclosure report filed with the House lists a savings account of $100,000 to $250,000, and the Center for Responsive Politics ranks his personal wealth in the bottom fifth of House members.
Gibson does little to hide his disdain for Eldridge, whom he calls a “young man with virtually no experience.” The district, encompassing a vast swath of the northern Hudson Valley and Catskills, is one of the most evenly divided in the country. Gibson won there in 2010 on the strength of the Republican wave and secured reelection in 2012 even as President Barack Obama carried the district by 6 percentage points.
“This is about him and his political aspirations, and I think that’s going to be a problem for him. He married well, he married into money,” Gibson said of Eldridge. “But there are some things money can’t buy.”
Who is Sean Eldridge?
It’s difficult to size up the person behind the polished image Eldridge and his campaign are projecting to voters. He’s been running for more than half a year but remains mostly an enigma.
Congressional challengers typically seek maximum media exposure; Eldridge allows few chance encounters with the media. His campaign frequently posts pictures on his Facebook page of the candidate out and about in the district, but local reporters say they’re usually not made aware of his public schedule ahead of time. He declined to be interviewed by POLITICO, and the door to his campaign headquarters in Kingston was locked on a recent visit. No one answered a call on an intercom.
A spokesman provided a statement from Eldridge that said, “Chris and I have been very fortunate in our lives, and we’ve benefited from those who took a chance on us. The Hudson Valley is our home, and we’re proud to be investing in entrepreneurship in our community.”
Even people who have spent time with the candidate aren’t sure what to make of him.
A few weeks after his September campaign launch, Eldridge sat for an interview with Alan Chartock, an influential liberal radio host in upstate New York. They talked for almost 30 minutes, discussing Eldridge’s views on the federal shutdown, environmental policy and money in politics.
“If you look at what we’ve seen in Washington recently, with more of this brinkmanship, more of the games and party politics that are really hurting our economy and hurting middle-class families and not helping anyone. I’m frustrated. I know we can be doing better than how we’re doing now,” Eldridge said in the interview.
Chartock came away without any real sense of the candidate.
Eldridge sounded like “what a young person thinks a politician should sound like,” the radio host said in an interview. “He’s right on all the issues, but what I think people are looking for is a person. He’s extremely bright, has all the assets that you need to run. But it’s cookie cutter.”
Eldridge employs a team of prominent political consultants — including media firm SKDKnickerbocker, polling outfit Global Strategy Group and veteran party operative Anne Lewis — who carefully tend to his image. Through the end of last year, he paid the three entities a total of $241,000, campaign records show.
The son of two physicians, Eldridge was born in Canada (he became a U.S. citizen in 2006) and grew up in Toledo, Ohio. He has long harbored political ambitions. In 2005, while attending Deep Springs College — a rigorous two-year institution in the California desert where pupils take part in such activities as harvesting alfalfa fields and laying gopher traps — a student magazine wrote that Eldridge would “soon become an American to pursue a political career in this country.”
In November of that year, at a brunch in Cambridge, Mass., a mutual friend introduced Eldridge to Hughes, who was at Harvard and helping to launch Facebook. A week later, Eldridge, at the time a customer service rep at a moving company, asked Hughes out on their first date. They married in June 2012.
Both were making serious moves in Democratic politics. In 2009, Eldridge withdrew from Columbia Law School to join a gay marriage advocacy group. In 2012, Hughes bought The New Republic, where he currently is publisher and editor-in-chief.
Friends say the two are very different personalities. Eldridge is an extrovert and social animal, Hughes is more reserved. Hughes — who did not appear in Eldridge’s introductory campaign video — does not participate in day-to-day campaign conversations or strategy sessions, instead providing moral support to the candidate.
“If you see the two of them at an event, Chris is the unassuming one. Sean is the one who will get up and ask you, ‘How is your day?’” said a person who knows the couple well.
“Sean is the strong personality of the two. He is the natural-born politician. Chris
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