Running as an outsider isn’t just in vogue for getting to Washington.
As all but four state legislatures convene over the next three months, governor hopefuls across the country are campaigning on a promise to reform state capitals—even the legislative bodies controlled by their own party.
“There’s sort of a desire to see things done differently, and I think that creates an opening for … first-time candidates,” said Cam Savage, a consultant to Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Kevin Stitt.
Republicans in particular have focused on general antipathy to GOP politicians in their state.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has signaled that he’ll run against a “culture of corruption” in Topeka. Former South Carolina cabinet official Catherine Templeton decries “corruption, waste, self-interest, and [the] good ol’ boy system” in Columbia as former consultants to her opponent, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, are indicted on corruption charges. And former U.S. Attorney Gary Richardson ran his first TV ad last month promising to “put an end to the corruption” in GOP-controlled Oklahoma City.
In Alabama, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle launched his campaign by bemoaning the “corruption,” “scandal,” and “embarrassment” of “leaders we’ve elected” following the resignation of Gov. Robert Bentley. Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler may declare a bid this month after predicting in his memoir that voters will break from “self-serving, money-wasting Montgomery Insiders” and vote to “Drain the Marsh,” referencing both President Trump’s slogan and the state Senate president pro tem, Republican Del Marsh.
The strategy is sometimes borne out of necessity in intraparty contests between front-runners and their challengers. Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley led an effort to make Lansing’s legislature part-time before declaring his bid against state Attorney General Bill Schuette. Calley spokesman Mike Schrimpf declined to make Calley available for an interview but noted polling “showing the race tightening” between the two Republicans for the nomination to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder.
States facing budget shortfalls have been attractive targets. Oklahoma candidates such as state Auditor Gary Jones, Richardson, and Stitt, the CEO of Gateway Mortgage, have all said that the Republican-controlled state government hasn’t properly handled the budget.
In Kansas, where Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will replace Gov. Sam Brownback pending his stalled confirmation to an ambassadorship, candidates “running as an outsider” are using “an outsider’s message,” as Republican consultant David Kensinger put it.
For example, former GOP state Rep. Mark Hutton began his campaign promising to fix a government that is “not just broke,” but “broken.” And Wink Hartman, an oil executive who ran for Congress in 2010 against now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, said in an interview he was running because “career politicians” are ill-suited to fix the “terrible” implementation of Brownback’s signature 2012 tax cuts.
“We have to constantly be critiquing ourselves,” said another Kansas Republican hopeful, Ed O’Malley, adding that doing so would “reward” Republicans for fixing Brownback’s “fiscal calamity.” “If we don’t do that, I think we end up in a pretty bad place.”
Republicans don’t have a monopoly on the outsider lane. Democrats in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois have also called out their states’ Democratic-controlled legislatures for their handling of the state budget.
Middletown, Connecticut Mayor Dan Drew, a progressive Democrat who began exploring a run before outgoing Gov. Dannel Malloy said he wouldn’t seek a third term, said in an interview that Hartford has produced “austerity budgets for quite a while” that have hurt families. “I think that’s one of the areas where we’ve gone wrong,” Drew said.
In Massachusetts, Setti Warren has pushed Boston to build high-speed rail and sided with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker on vetoing legislator pay raises. Months before the state missed budget deadlines this summer, the former Newton mayor said in an interview that he would push “some of my friends in the Democratic Party … on Beacon Hill” to be “transparent” about revenue projections in order to “keep the budget afloat” without “gimmicks.”
Democratic candidates for the nomination to challenge Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner are also campaigning against state party chairman Mike Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in American history. One of those candidates, Chris Kennedy, accused legislative leaders in an interview of blackballing an education-funding overhaul because they’re “property-tax-appeals lawyers” who are “making millions of dollars a year on a system that’s damning the next generation.” He also accused Madigan of “recruiting a billionaire, J.B. Pritzker, to stop me in a primary.”
“I go to speeches, and people are like, ‘Why is a Kennedy being critical of [the] Democratic Party?’” he said.
But he recalled that his father Robert Kennedy, as well as his uncles John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, took on Democratic establishment favorites for president: “A Kennedy Democrat is used to running against the party.”