Herman Cain’s commanding win at last weekend’s Florida straw poll will be long forgotten by the time the presidential election is over, but the sentiment fueling the success of a businessman without an iota of political experience is no accident. The upcoming election will be featuring an electorate that lacks confidence in its political leaders—and that means political experience will be an albatross around many candidates’ necks in 2012.
The dissatisfaction with the current field stems in part from their familiarity, which can often breed contempt. Mitt Romney has spent at least the last five years preparing for a presidential campaign. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in the country. Newt Gingrich wore out his welcome after spending 20 years in the House, the last several in a tumultuous tenure as House Speaker. Rick Santorum spent more than a decade in the Senate, and was overwhelmingly defeated as he sought a third term. Even though she’s only been in office for five years, Rep. Michele Bachmann is a familiar presence on cable television. Experience is often an asset, but this year, voters are looking for a fresh face—and they’re not finding it in this crop of candidates.
Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly summed up the view best in an appearance on Good Morning America on Tuesday: “Bring in regular folks to run the country! People that don't do politics for a living.... Do something right for the country once in a while, instead of thinking about your career.”
O’Reilly’s bloviating aside, his point is widely shared by most Americans. Look at the latest Gallup polling, where voters are expressing historic levels of negativity towards the government and its ability to get things done. A whopping 81 percent are dissatisfied with how the nation is being governed. A 53-percent majority said they have “little or no confidence” in the men and women who seek or hold elected office, a record high. Just three years ago, only 32 percent felt the same way.
That dynamic is already playing out in a number of 2011 elections. In Kentucky, the Republican establishment rallied behind state Senate President David Williams, who had served in the state legislature since 1987 and as his party's leader in the state Senate since 2000. Despite being the clear favorite, he only won 48 percent of the vote in a three-way primary, underperforming polls that showed him with a substantial lead over businessman Phil Moffett.
Williams’ legislative experience has turned into a major liability in his race against Gov. Steve Beshear, D-Ky. Turning the tables, Beshear has cast Williams as a profligate spender who has used the perks of office for personal benefit. Williams’ chances of winning are so remote that the Republican Governors Association stopped spending money in the state, privately viewing the race as near-unwinnable.
The story is different in West Virginia, which holds its gubernatorial special election next month. In the primary, Republicans nominated the political outsider, businessman Bill Maloney, over Secretary of State Betty Ireland, and that decision has given the GOP an outside shot at an upset. The Democratic governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, spent a whopping 36 years in the state legislature before ascending to the governorship when Joe Manchin won election to the U.S. Senate.
Maloney, the underdog, is making a late push, attacking Tomblin for his insider connections. “Politicians in Charleston are in a race to help themselves,” begins one anti-Tomblin ad, alleging the state’s dog-track fund paid more than $2 million to Tomblin’s family. “Earl Ray got his way—you got the bill.” Democrats still expect to hang on, but it’s likely the only closely contested gubernatorial race this year.
The public’s thirst for outsiders was even more pronounced in this month’s shocking special election upset in New York City. Rep. Bob Turner, R-N.Y., a 70-year-old businessman running his first-ever campaign, upset Democratic state Assemblyman David Weprin, in this month’s special election in a solidly-Democratic district in Queens and Brooklyn. That continued a remarkable anti-politician streak in the Empire State: In the last four special elections in New York, the party that nominated the state legislator lost, while the party that nominated the outsider won.
Even more impressive was that of the six New York House seats that Republicans picked up in the 2010 midterms—more than any other state—all the winners were new to the political process. Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle and Nan Hayworth had backgrounds in medicine. Rep. Chris Gibson was an Iraq War veteran. Rep. Tom Reed served as a small-town mayor. Rep. Richard Hanna was a successful businessman. And Rep. Michael Grimm worked for the FBI. Republicans picked up more seats in New York during the 2010 midterms than in any other state, despite their miserable special-election track record.
That offers an important lesson to congressional campaign officials looking to recruit candidates into a poisonous political environment. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already landed a handful of compelling political outsiders like retired Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, running in a swing Orlando district, and Illinois congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs and an arm while serving in Iraq.
One of the House Republicans’ star recruits early on is Ricky Gill, a 24-year-old law-school wunderkind challenging Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., and making waves. Tom Cotton, an Iraq war veteran, is the GOP favorite to succeed retiring Arkansas Democrat Mike Ross. Mia Love, the first African-American mayor in Utah, is exploring a run against Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
It also offers a cautionary tale for Senate recruiters, who are used to looking at members of Congress as the most logical candidates for a promotion—even though Washington insiders have never been viewed more unfavorably. Democrats have been bullish about the prospects for Reps. Shelley Berkley and Tammy Baldwin in the open-seat Nevada and Wisconsin Senate races, but they carry baggage from their time spent in Washington. In New Mexico, Rep. Martin Heinrich was the early Democratic favorite, but he’s facing a surprisingly stiff challenge from state Auditor Hector Balderas, who’s been emphasizing his New Mexico roots.
On the GOP side, Republicans are optimistic about former Rep. Pete Hoekstra’s campaign against Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, but his time in Washington could be as much a liability as a strength—especially in a GOP primary. Keep a close eye on his primary opponent Clark Durant, a charter-school advocate. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., is struggling to get much enthusiasm for his campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Consider this: Of the 87 Republican freshmen elected to the House in last year’s wave, 34 of them had no elected experience before deciding to run for office. The current Senate Republican freshman class includes Kentucky's Rand Paul, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, and Utah's Mike Lee—all senators who made their political debuts in 2010.
As my colleague Charlie Cook wrote this month, “In this political and economic climate, volatility will be the name of the game.” Indeed, anyone with political experience -- incumbents and challengers alike -- will find such a background to be an occupational hazard in next year's elections.