Republicans are banking on businessmen to help them retake the Senate in 2014.
A half-dozen top GOP candidates boast records as wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs. If voters decide they’re successful job creators on Election Day, Republicans could be on their way to the six seats they need to win the upper chamber.
Looking for candidates with a “job creator” pedigree is nothing new for either party, but for Republicans it’s been especially risky in recent years.
Republicans argue this year’s crop of Senate recruits is better than the several self-funding businessmen who crashed and burned in 2012. But they acknowledge that whether their candidates’ resumes hold up to scrutiny could determine who holds Senate control next year.
“ ‘Businessman problem solver’ good, ‘wealthy businessman out of touch with workers’ bad,” one national GOP strategist wryly noted.
Six Republican candidates with serious Senate aspirations are wealthy businessmen. Some are political newcomers, like Iowa Senate candidate Mark Jacobs (R), Georgia’s David Perdue (R) and Minnesota’s Mike McFadden (R).
Others are current office-holders, like Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and North Carolina Speaker Thom Tillis (R), but they’re emphasizing their business backgrounds instead of their electoral experience.
Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) and her husband are also wealthy from their real estate investments and property management business, though she’s emphasized her time in office more than her private-sector experience.
Private-sector candidates from both parties have some inherent strengths. Most aren’t tainted by the “career politician label” and can bill themselves as outsiders. They also don’t have to worry about past votes, and if they’re wealthy enough, they can help fund their own campaigns. Tillis, Jacobs and Perdue have already given their campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars, while Land has spent $1.6 million of the $5 million she’s promised to personally invest.
But there are a number of pitfalls. Businessmen often have to deal with any lawsuits their companies have faced, any employees they’ve laid off and any other unpopular moves their companies made.
“This is the classic Mitt Romney problem. There is a ton of information out there in the public sphere, especially for candidates who made their fortunes through publicly traded corporations. There are SEC filings, court records, and various other reports you can dig up ... and frequently the best business decision isn’t necessarily the best political decision,” said Matt Thornton, a Democratic strategist. “The more candidates are going to rely on their business acumen as a qualifier for office, the more they’ll have to defend everything that goes along with their business experience.”
Thornton was a senior strategist for the Democratic opposition research firm American Bridge when the group helped craft the line of attack that helped define the GOP presidential nominee and other candidates’ business backgrounds in 2012. He said he’d almost always rather face a candidate with an extensive business record and no political record than the opposite.
“The problem with many of these businessmen and self-funders is everything that comes out about them is new and potentially controversial,” he said. “There could be surprises around every corner.”
Some Republicans privately agree.
“There is absolutely a tradeoff,” said one GOP strategist who’s worked for a number of self-funding GOP businessmen but asked not to be named because of his current client list.
“By and large these guys are first-time candidates who don’t have that voting record and aren’t tainted as a politician,” he continued. “But a successful businessperson in this country has likely been sued, they could very well have had personnel issues, there could be government agency issues. It’s a whole area of potential problems that rank-and-file citizens who run for office don’t have to confront.”
Self-funding candidates and wealthy businessmen have struggled at the ballot box in recent years.
Romney lost in 2012, as did Republican Senate candidates Rick Berg in North Dakota and Tom Smith in Pennsylvania. Republican hopefuls John Raese in West Virginia and Linda McMahon in Connecticut have lost multiple races despite spending millions from their own pockets. A half-dozen other Republican self-funders lost 2012 Senate primaries despite outspending their opponents. Connecticut Democrat Ned Lamont (D) lost a 2006 Senate race and 2010 gubernatorial primary despite spending millions.
Both parties have won with business candidates in other races, however. Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) both leaned heavily on their business records and economic savvy in their winning campaigns.
Corporate track records have often translated to governorships too, though some won more easily than others. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) both prevailed in their campaigns, though their business records were more a liability than an asset.
“Some businessmen make very good candidates, some make very bad candidates, and we’re confident that the businessmen who are running this year will make very good candidates,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring.
And with an economy that’s still sagging and businesses looking to implement ObamaCare regulations, Republicans running this year are touting their resumes as proof they know how to help spur growth even in difficult climates.
In Georgia, Perdue’s introductory campaign video painted him as a turnaround specialist and political outsider who’s brought jobs to Georgia in his roles running Reebok and Dollar General. McFadden made a similar argument in his introductory video, touting his work at Lazard Middle Market.
Both Tillis and Daines stressed their business records in their first TV ads, downplaying their time in office. Daines touted his work “growing companies and creating jobs” with RightNow Technologies, while the tag on Tillis’s first ad is “Businessman. Conservative.”
But Democrats — and some of the GOP business candidates’ primary opponents — are already attacking them on their business records.
Daines has been accused of outsourcing jobs to China. Both Democrats and Republicans have hit Jacobs for the decades he lived outside Iowa, working for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street and in Texas for an energy company. Similar attacks are likely to come against McFadden, Land and Perdue.
“Millionaire Republican Senate candidates who dump their fortunes into campaigns in an attempt to cover up their reckless and irresponsible agendas in order to buy Senate seats will inevitably fail just like Linda McMahon, Rick Berg, Jon Bruner and others did last cycle,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky.
Republican candidates and their allies plan to counter the Democratic attacks by playing up their humble beginnings and by counterattacking on the Democrats’ records.
“This year we have a very strong group and class of diverse, talented candidates. Of those with business experience, many are-self made — two of them grew up in trailer parks. ... They understand what it’s like to struggle paycheck to paycheck and move up the economic ladder,” said Dayspring. “Candidates who were successful in the business world, successful in creating jobs, have a great story to tell.”