Missouri Senate candidate becomes litmus test for ‘Washington outsider’ campaign strategy

Herman Cain had his career as a successful restaurant executive to promote during his brief reign atop the GOP presidential polls. Mitt Romney has similarly touted his private-sector experience at every possible opportunity, although he was also an elected governor and can’t convincingly argue he’s a political newcomer.

Republican candidates for Senate have also played up their commercial résumés, including Wil Cardon in Arizona, Eric Hovde in Wisconsin, Tom Leppert in Texas and Craig Miller in Florida, who dropped out of the Senate primary in January to run for the House instead.

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But for Brunner, his record as a businessman is the beginning, middle and end of his argument for why Missouri voters should elect him to the nation’s highest deliberative body. Brunner’s family business, Vi-Jon, makes cosmetic and healthcare products including Germ-X hand sanitizer, and is a major player in the St. Louis business scene.

Brunner has likened the choice voters face in picking leaders to rectify the economy to the choice that medical patients make. Most, he says, would choose the surgeon with 2,000 operations under his belt over the medical school dean who’s only read about the procedure in a book.

Brunner is running third in the polls in the GOP primary, behind former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Rep. Todd Akin (Mo.). The winner will face a general election against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), whose seat is one Republicans in Washington are most optimistic about flipping as they seek the four seats they need to gain the majority in the Senate (if President Obama wins reelection).

“I’m promoting a product called John Brunner,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “We’re a couple months ahead of expectations. It’s a great message of the citizen-senator against the career politician.”

In the five months since he entered the Senate race, Brunner has made major gains in name recognition, thanks in part to the more than $2 million of his own money he’s pumped into his campaign and television ads he has aired statewide. But his stumbles in public speaking and in answering specific policy questions have raised doubts about his readiness for lawmaking.

“People keep asking me if this is tougher than business or not,” Brunner said. “The biggest challenge is real estate. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”

As he travels Missouri introducing himself to voters, Brunner has focused on the lessons he learned in business that he says apply to government. He argues that allowing debt to escalate unabated digs a hole that no entity — private or public — can climb out of, and that by putting a hold on excessive regulations, “you’re going to find this economy turning around almost instantly.”

But with two experienced public servants in the race, it remains to be seen whether Brunner’s business credentials will strike voters as sufficient.

“People still as often as not want to have somebody who’s been there before and knows what it’s all about,” said Terrence Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

And both of Brunner’s GOP opponents can convincingly argue that they too are positioned to restore conservatism and common sense to the Senate, Jones said. Akin is considered one of the most conservative Republicans in the House, and Steelman is the only Republican in the race who is not from St. Louis.

“There’s the suspicion that St. Louis is not really Missouri, that you can be corrupted by being close to the big city,” Jones said.

If Brunner intends to make his business record the centerpiece of his campaign, his rivals in both parties are determined to pick that record apart. Democrats have already pounced on Brunner for multiple television ads where he appears on the floor of his company’s factory touting his job-creating prowess — even though Vi-Jon laid off 36 workers in October 2011, the same month Brunner entered the race.

Brunner points out that he resigned as CEO in 2009 and stepped down as chairman of the board in September 2011, meaning he no longer presided over the company’s day-to-day decisions at the time of the layoffs. But Democrats note that he took a salary of almost $375,000 from the company that same year.

“If John Brunner was taking nearly $400,000 in salary and filming dishonest ‘job-creator’ ads on Vi-Jon’s factory floor, Brunner clearly had to know what was going on with Vi-Jon’s recent layoffs,” Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki said in February.

And in a debate last week on radio station KMOX, Brunner — like the other Republicans — was unable to cite the federal minimum wage. But he said he knew his company paid its workers more than the minimum.

Brunner told The Hill he was confident of that claim because he remembered the required workplace signs he put up in his factory every year, and recalled thinking, “My gosh, we’re way ahead of that.

“Everything I could do to make this a better company meant I could pay people more,” Brunner said. “It’s good for the associates, it’s good for the business.”

And if it’s good for the business, it’s good for politics, Brunner and his team hope. Primary voters will decide on Aug. 11 whether it’s good enough for them, too.

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