Republicans hope a fresh crop of business executives-turned-political candidates can bolster the party’s fortunes in November.
In races from California to Ohio, Democrats are targeting several leading GOP candidates who boast long corporate and Wall Street résumés.
Two prominent GOP recruits from the business world are California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R), who was CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. for five years, and Ohio gubernatorial candidate John Kasich (R), who was with Lehman Brothers for close to eight years proceeding its collapse. There are several others from the business world running this cycle and still more, such as former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who lobbied for financial firms.
“The Republicans have always gotten some of their most attractive candidates out of the corporate world,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “American corporations are to the Republican Party what the Dominican Republic is to baseball.”
Democrats want to portray these candidates as out of touch with “Main Street.”
“At a time when consumers and business along Main Street need advocates in Washington, Republicans are running the very people who fought for the corporate interests on Wall Street,” said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Whether it’s [Pennsylvania Senate candidate] Pat Toomey protecting derivative trading, Dan Coats lining his pockets lobbying for the big banks or Carly Fiorina laying off 20,000 workers, these candidates will have a lot to answer for.”
Candidates with flush bank accounts and intimidating résumés have always had to work to convince voters they’ll represent their interests, strategists said. At times it can be a plus to tout your knowledge of how the system works.
“It depends on how you’re perceived, and that’s the key,” said Sal Russo, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant who now works with the group Tea Party Express. “Everyone believed Ronald Reagan was on their side. Everybody believed Barack Obama was on their side.”
He also pointed to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who represents one of the poorest states in the country despite hailing from a wealthy family. “He convinced them he was on their side,” Russo said. A candidate has to “demonstrate that you have an understanding of how the system works but you’re committed to economic policies that are going to foster job creation.”
Fiorina, who still has to survive a three-way primary, is doing that in California.
“She’s saying, ‘I am a successful CEO, and that’s what the country needs right now: somebody who understands the private sector, the economy and how to put profits back into the engine itself,’ ” said Eric Hogue, a California-based conservative talk radio host.
He noted eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R) has adopted a similar strategy in the gubernatorial race.
“They are running as CEOs, and I think your average Joe and Jane in California understand that,” Hogue said. “They are saying, ‘Our résumé is all about adding jobs in the private sector.’ They’re doing a very good job of communicating that.”
Whitman has been one of the most prominent former CEOs to invest in her campaign. She has put $39 million of her own money into the governor’s race.
In California’s Senate race, Fiorina has two hurdles to overcome, Hogue noted. “One, a lot of people were let go [during her tenure at HP], and there’s the innuendo that she made a lot of mistakes at the top,” he said.
Many voters understand the context in which the Hewlett-Packard layoffs happened, he added. “Dot-com was laying people off. If you compare what HP laid off to other companies, HP was not that severe. I think a lot of folks understand outsourcing because of government regulations.”
The Kasich campaign in Ohio hasn’t emphasized his experience at Lehman, but Gov. Ted Strickland’s (D) campaign has been using it as the main line of attack against the former congressman.
The Strickland campaign is banking on voters blaming the economic collapse on Wall Street greed and pressed Kasich to release his tax returns to show he profited from the investment bank’s 2008 collapse.
Kasich recently released his 2008 tax returns and his campaign has tried to move past the story.
Instead, Republicans view this cycle as a referendum on the party in power. Many strategists think that for the frustrated voter, a business résumé will trump government experience.
“When you’re a Democrat candidate who just spent the last two years maxing out the government credit card, running up the debt and raising taxes, while doing nothing to strengthen the economy and create jobs, it’s difficult to see how you can possibly position yourself as a defender of the middle-class taxpayer or small-business community,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.