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Will wealth backfire for 2016 GOP candidates?

Clinton bungled remarks about her personal wealth. But it isn’t as if the potential GOP field is absolved from future financial scrutiny.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) during his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md, March 6, 2014.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) during his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md, March 6, 2014.

Hillary Clinton's ham-handed comments about her family's wealth have given plenty of fodder to Republicans, who have gleefully seized on them to cast the likely 2016 Democratic front-runner as an out-of-touch plutocrat who is unable to relate to ordinary Americans. But the potential GOP field isn't absolved from future financial scrutiny of its own.

Earlier this month, Clinton told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer – during an interview from a luxurious sitting room in her multi-million dollar Washington D.C. home – that she and her husband were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001. And over the weekend, Clinton told the Guardian that she’s not “truly well-off” compared to the wealthiest Americans.

There are no two ways about it: The Clintons are rich. While they have long championed policies that help the poor and middle class, their net worth is estimated in the tens of millions, and the optics of trying to pretend otherwise are not good. 

Predictably, Republicans hope to capitalize on the kind of message that torpedoed Mitt Romney in 2012. 

The Republican National Committee sent out an email over the weekend with the subject “world’s smallest violin is playing for Hillary.” Tim Miller, the executive director of the conservative super PAC “America Rising,” criticized Clinton for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking engagements, insisting she needs to “reconnect with what’s happening back here on Earth.” Even some Democrats are sounding the alarm.

Vice President Joe Biden (who is also considering a 2016 run) even got in his own dig on Monday, describing his own more meager financial status at a summit on working families. Biden, a longtime Democratic senator from Delaware before joining the Obama ticket, said he didn’t have a single stock or bond, and called himself “the poorest man in Congress." (Still, the Bidens’ estimated net worth is between $336,804 and $2.3 million -- far more than that of most Americans.)

Should she run for president in 2016, Clinton will almost certainly be the wealthiest candidate (unless billionaire real estate tycoon Donald Trump launches a quixotic bid.)

On the Republican side, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida have an average net worth in the $400,000 to $550,000 range, according to an analysis from from the Center for Responsive Politics. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s average net worth is about $3 million, while  Rep. Paul Ryan is estimated around $5.4 million. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s has an estimated net worth of about $4 million. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, upon leaving office in 2007, had just $1.3 million, making no secret that he wanted to make more money outside of public office (although Bush has reportedly  made significantly more money since through speaking engagements and advising Lehman Brothers and Barclays). 

Still, several of the likely GOP candidates have money issues they'll have to address should they jump in the race.

Marco Rubio: Despite his reputation as a federal spending watchdog, the tea party favorite has had financial problems that surfaced in 2012 when his name was being floated as a potential running mate for Romney.

When Rubio joined the Florida House of Representatives in 2000, he was saddled with $30,000 in “assorted credit and retail debt” and had $165,000 in student loans. In 2008, he failed to pay the down principal on his home for several months and did not pay the balance of his student loans in 2008. 

Rubio reportedly used little-known political committees to fund his travel at the beginning of his career and had a Republican Party of Florida credit card, which he used for personal expenses, like a $130 barber shop visit. The Internal Revenue Service looked into the use of the party-issued credit cards, with Rubio eventually reimbursing the credit card company $16,000.

The Tampa Bay Times wrote in 2010 that a pattern emerged of Rubio “blending personal and political spending. Over and over again Rubio proved sloppy, at best, in complying with disclosure requirements.”

The Federal Election Commission also fined Rubio $8,000 for accepting more than $210,000 in improper contributions when he ran for Senate in 2010.

Rick Perry: When Rick Perry filed a disclosure form in 2011 as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, the Texas governor was revealed to be a double dipper – receiving both a $150,000 salary and a $7,700 monthly state pension at the same time.

The arrangement is unusual, but it wasn’t illegal – the state’s law allows employees to get retirement benefits if their age and years of military and state service add up to more than 80. But critics charged Perry was a hypocrite – trying to increase his own government income at taxpayers' expense even as he slashed state spending and pledged financial prudence if elected president.

Critics likewise cast Perry as a hypocrite in 2012 after it was disclosed that $25 million in state money had been spent on renovating the governor’s mansion. There was an arson attack in 2008 that damaged the building, but exorbitant costs for items like inch-thick longleaf pine floors, a new wing and geothermal heating and cooling systems enraged many. At the time, Perry was asking state agencies to cut their spending by 10%.

Jeb Bush: Yes, Clinton has been heavily criticized for her pricey speaking engagements. But Bush, a former Florida governor, has also reportedly earned millions since leaving office through corporate speeches and consulting gigs.

The money Bush has made sitting on several boards has already started to be scrutinized. As  the New York Times reported in April, Bush sat on the board of soap maker Swisher Hygiene during a time when executives there admitted their financial statements were “unreliable” and accounting practices “inadequate.” Bush also raked in more than $2 million from his work as a board member with Tenet Health Care. Tenet, according to the Times, “aggressively encouraged Americans to sign up for insurance under the [Affordable Care Act] and trumpeted the legislation as a boon to the company’s finances.” Bush has spoken out about Obama’s health care plan, but the ties to the group could serve as a black eye among fellow GOPers should he run for president.

Ted Cruz: Cruz’s wife, Heidi Nelson Cruz, is a managing director at the giant investment bank Goldman Sachs. Last year, she acknowledged her husband was on her corporate health care plan, estimated to be worth at least $20,000 a year. Cruz has had access to those benefits even as he tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has helped millions of Americans afford health insurance. 

Cruz, of course, rode a tea party wave to victory following the 2008 financial meltdown, in which Goldman played a key role. Most of the family’s income has come from Goldman and the firm is also an important donor base for Cruz.