Democrat Jared Polis is running for congress in CD-2 (Boulder) in a bid to replace Rep. Mark Udall, who is leaving his seat to run for U.S. Senate in 2008. Polis is a former member of the state school board, and he’s also a multi-millionaire. He’s about to find that there can be a downside to having a big bank account when you’re running for public office.

Polis is currently trying to raise money for his congressional bid in the midst of a three-way Democratic primary (Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and environmentalist Will Shafroth are the other two candidates), but it’s hard to convince people to write you a check when your have more personal money than everybody else…and everybody else knows it. Democrat Rutt Bridges learned this lesson during his brief run for governor in spring 2005; everybody Bridges contacted for money knew that he was a millionaire, and it was a frustrating experience for him to try to explain to other people why he needed their money.

So why does Polis need your money? Because raising money isn’t just about the money – it’s about what the money says about you as a candidate. Most early donors give money to candidates who they think have the best chance of winning, because then they have a chip to play once that candidate wins. In the insider political game that takes place months before the public really starts paying attention, the amount of money a candidate raises indicates how much support they have…as well as how many people think they have a good chance of winning. Presidential candidates spend so much time raising money right now because they need it to get their message out, but also because it shows how much support they have relative to other candidates; the candidates with the most money are normally considered to be the candidates with the best chance of winning the election, for obvious reasons.

This is all harder to do on a local level when you are someone like Jared Polis, however. You may think Polis is the best candidate and has the best chance of winning, but it’s natural to be reluctant to write the guy a check when you know he has more than enough personal wealth to finance his own campaign. Candidates understand the importance of perception when it comes to raising money, but it’s harder to convince a potential donor that you need their money when you don’t really need their money.

If I was Polis, here’s what I would do: I would ask people for $20. Polis is going to have a hard time getting a lot of $2,100 checks (the maximum contribution allowed), but if he asks for a small amount like $20, then he’ll have a much better chance of success. Instead of trying to raise a lot of money, Polis could then concentrate on trying to attract a lot of individual donors. He can still win the perception battle that surrounds fundraising by coming up with more individual donors than either Fitz-Gerald or Shafroth, and he can explain the low amounts by saying that he planned to spend his own money on the race – which he is going to do anyway – so he didn’t want to ask people to make huge financial commitments.

If you can boast 5,000 individual donors, it says just as much about the strength of your candidacy as if you can boast of raising $500,000. The message is the same – I have a lot of support from a lot of people – but it’s easier to accomplish when you are a multi-millionare candidate.