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Against the Grain

GOP Senate Candidates: Yesteryear's Heroes

One of Mitt Romney’s significant vulnerabilities in the presidential race is the hole in his resume after he left the Massachusetts governorship in January 2007. After his term ended, he became something of a permanent presidential candidate — all while earning little day-to-day income and living off his considerable wealth. The Obama campaign has exploited the too-rich-to-work perception by attacking him for declining to disclose his early tax returns. There’s a reason why Romney didn’t talk much about his biography after winning the Republican nomination – there’s not a whole lot of recent history there.  

In that sense, Romney has quite a bit in common with much of the underperforming Republican Senate candidate class of 2012. Entering the cycle with a real promise of becoming majority-makers, many of them have fallen short of expectations. One of the big reasons why is the GOP’s reliance on candidates whose best political days are behind them. And like Romney, most of them haven’t been working outside politics since leaving office.


Former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson and former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, despite running solid campaigns, have failed to catch fire with constituents who once supported them. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, at age 70, stumbled away an early post-primary lead over Tammy Baldwin, looking little like the figure who dominated Wisconsin politics throughout the 1990s. He’s been hammered to devastating effect on the airwaves over his post-gubernatorial lobbying work and derided as a symbol of “going Washington.”  Former Virginia Sen. George Allen prefers to be called governor — a position he last held in 1997 — over the more recent title of senator, which he held until 2008. He’s got a fighting chance against Democrat Tim Kaine, but he’s a slight underdog in a state trending the president’s way. 

It’s not just a Republican phenomenon. Former independent Maine Gov. Angus King, who hasn’t run for office since 1998, suddenly finds himself in a closer-than-expected, three-way Senate race despite being the clear front-runner all year long. One of the few Democratic Senate candidates lagging well behind expectations is former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, whose political rust is evident on the campaign trail. He spent the last decade in New York City as president of the New School; his wife, a comedy writer, mocked the mores of Nebraska voters in a Vogue magazine essay soon after he jumped in the race. He last ran for the Senate an eternity ago, during President Clinton’s first term in 1994.

But Senate Republicans are more dependent on political veterans for their success, and they have been blindsided when their favored candidates haven’t lived up to the hype.  Party officials prefer to go after brand-name recruits, confident they’re capable of raising big bucks, securing support from party leaders and attracting positive press from the political media. The problem is, the political environment has dramatically changed since the last presidential election, especially for Republicans. Voters are more inclined to support outsiders, suspicious of anyone with Washington experience, at a time when approval of Congress is at an all-time low. 


Consider the backgrounds of some of the brightest stars from the GOP’s class of 2009-2010. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie once served as a U.S. attorney; New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte was her state’s attorney general; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval served as a federal district judge; Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson headed a plastics manufacturing company; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was a small-county prosecutor in her state. To be sure, some victors hailed from Washington and the world of elective politics, but many were outsiders whose image was a refreshing contrast to the gridlock in the nation’s capital.

The GOP establishment’s blind spot was exemplified by the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s decision in 2010 to endorse and rally party troops behind then-Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, even when a young up-and-coming Hispanic star named Marco Rubio was waiting in the wings. Crist, after losing the primary, is now an Obama supporter and a thorn in the side of his old allies.

It all underscores that many of the old rules of politics don’t apply like they once did.  Raising big bucks for a Senate campaign once required the type of Washington veteran with a deep Rolodex and close connections to the party establishment. Now, thanks to online innovations, a savvy outsider can tap into the party grassroots to both establish a brand and raise quick money. 

A decade ago, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t have stood out from the other many faceless bureaucrats in Washington. In today’s environment, she’s become a liberal cause célèbre, raising money unheard of for a Senate challenger. At this time in 2008, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was an obscure ophthalmologist, but he has become a political powerhouse in just two years. It’s in part thanks to his father’s libertarian network of supporters, but also a testament to the value of being an outsider.


Indeed, one of the biggest surprise Senate candidates is Connecticut Republican Linda McMahon, a World Wrestling Entertainment mogul who has presented her unconventional background as a refreshing contrast against Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, who has spent his entire career in politics. By attacking him as a Washington insider with questionable ethics, she’s made the race highly competitive, despite running in a solidly Democratic state.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that Republican hopes of achieving a Senate majority rest on the campaigns of old-timers like Allen, Thompson, along with several sitting members of Congress, like North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg and Montana Rep. Dennis Rehberg. It’s a bet that’s dependent on the nostalgia of the past, at a time when voters are desperately looking for candidates able to articulate a vision for the future.

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