Senate races testing viability of GOP 'businessman-candidate'

As President Obama and Democrats litigate whether Mitt Romney’s business credentials make him a suitable occupant for the Oval Office, the effects are being felt down-ballot in Senate races across the country.

A half-dozen competitive Senate races this cycle feature a Republican businessman running solely on his or her record of creating jobs and generating revenue. It’s a message that resonated particularly well with voters amid a lagging economy, high unemployment and general disdain for an entrenched class of career politicians.

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“They feel like the government is broken, and the theory is if you put a businessman or businesswoman in power, they’ll do a better job at cleaning up the mess,” said Chris Perkins, a Republican pollster.

An executive resume has automatic appeal in a Republican primary, strategists said, because it suggests fiscal competence and an understanding of the factors that drive prosperity and growth.

For independent and general-election voters, businessmen-candidates can capitalize on anti-incumbency sentiments and the feeling that Washington is fiscally and morally bankrupt, satisfying the hunger of those who want to “throw the bums out.”

The only place businessmen don’t play well is in a Democratic primary, said Perkins.

“Their base has a distrust of business, because that smells of Wall Street or corporate America” he said. “It doesn’t fit the ideological mode of traditional Democratic voters because they’ve heard about class warfare from the Democrats before.”

In Connecticut, Republican Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has a commanding lead in the GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

McMahon is running about 30 points ahead of former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), but some Republicans are concerned about her viability in the general election. McMahon pumped more than $50 million of personal funds into her 2010 bid for Senate and won the nomination, then lost to the Democrat in November.

Early on in the race to replace retiring Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R), real estate mogul Wil Cardon was seen as little more than a nuisance to Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), the GOP front-runner. But Cardon has climbed from 49 points behind Flake to 22 points, with more than two months left until the primary.

Flake’s supporters chalk it up to the more than $4 million of family money that Cardon has already injected into his campaign — much of it spent on negative ads attacking Flake. Cardon’s campaign attributes his success to the strength of his pro-business record and to the questions they have raised about Flake’s conservative credentials.

But while some of the candidates are flourishing, others have floundered.

Republican Craig Miller, the former CEO of the Ruth's Chris Steak House restaurant chain, dropped out of the Florida Senate primary after failing to gain any traction. He’s now running for a House seat instead, but the field is crowded. Another GOP businessman, Mike McCalister, is still in the Senate primary, but is polling in the single digits.

In Texas, Tom Leppert, the former head of a major construction company, portrayed himself as a businessman whose success in the private sector predated his entrance into politics, where he became the Dallas mayor. But despite spending $4 million of his own cash on the primary for retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R) seat, Leppert failed to make the runoff in May and was squeezed out of the race.

In Michigan, charter school executive Clark Durant is challenging former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) for the nomination to take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), but Durant appears to be the underdog. The same can be said of businessman Eric Hovde in Wisconsin, who is running in a crowded field of well-known GOP candidates.

Romney and his former colleagues at Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney co-founded, have been forced by Democrats to spend the past few months defending the firm’s record against charges of predatory behavior and vulture capitalism.

That level of scrutiny may not be surprising in a presidential race. But Senate candidates who put their business background front and center must also be prepared for their corporate records to be picked apart publicly.

Such has been the case for John Brunner, one of three Republicans vying to take on Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). Once in a distant third place, Brunner has climbed into second place in the GOP primary, just a few points behind former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.

“John Brunner made his business record the centerpiece of his campaign and, unfortunately for him, he will have to answer a lot of difficult questions about that,” said one Missouri Democratic strategist. “When you actually look at John Brunner's real business record, it's pretty clear that John Brunner's only interested in helping one person: himself.”

Democrats have hammered Brunner over workers that his family company, Vi-Jon, laid off in 2011 — the same year he filmed ads on the floor of one of the company’s factories touting his job-creating prowess.

Brunner wasn’t at the head of Vi-Jon when they layoffs were announced. But when Democrats discovered that Brunner took a salary of almost $375,000 from the company in 2011, they mused publicly whether he would make similar choices as a senator.

A few months later, when Vi-Jon’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s, Brunner’s Republican opponents circulated the news of the downgrade, and his critics questioned his business aptitude and commitment to fiscal responsibility.

Steelman’s spokesman, Patrick Tuohey, took to Twitter on Thursday to berate Brunner repeatedly for the downgrade.

“If @BrunnerForMO business Vi-Jon were in the EU, it would have the 2nd worst credit rating — just above Greece,” Tuohey wrote.

Todd Abrajano, the Brunner campaign's communications director, fired back at those attacking his private sector background. 

"John Brunner retired as the CEO of Vi-Jon in 2009 and over the course of his career he had an indisputable record of creating over one thousand, good paying jobs and led the company to its strongest position in their one-hundred-year history," Abrajano said. "Attacking John Brunner for things that he had nothing to do with, and that occurred years after he was no longer running Vi-Jon, highlights the desperation of his opponents on his left now that he is leading all of them in the most recent primary and general election polling."

This story was updated at 12:17 p.m. on June 18.