Campaigns get down to business sense

LANSING, Mich. | “One tough nerd.” “One chance” to fix things. An invitation to “reinvent” Michigan — a state straining mightily against its manufacturing past and still firmly caught in the recession’s coils.

That is the campaign pitch from GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rick Snyder, a newbie millionaire candidate and corporate type who shocked many as he steamrolled a Republican primary slate earlier this month that included veteran Rep. Peter Hoekstra and other political well-knowns.

Mr. Snyder, a venture capitalist who earned his fortune years ago in the technology industry as president of Gateway computers, is one of several new faces with deep pockets entering the political fray across the nation as voters, smarting over the economy, look for new blood — and a successful corporate resume — as an alternative to the Beltway status quo.

Mr. Snyder, 52, whose bid was endorsed by Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr., faces the heavily union-backed Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, 46, a former state legislator and son of a General Motors Co. autoworker. Mr. Bernero’s passionate defense of the traditional manufacturing culture here — on national display during the auto-industry bailout hearings last year — pits his blue-collar credibility against Mr. Snyder’s new-wave tech and financial savvy in a state with a $300 million budget shortfall and 13.1 percent unemployment.

With polls falling steadily for President Obama and a voter backlash brewing against congressional Democrats, some party establishment candidates are in the fight of their lives as new — and independently wealthy — challengers step up to finance campaigns aimed at voters’ emotional “fix it now” angst.

Even as critics assail their self-financed bids for office as ego-driven and “buying the election,” others understand the desire for new political blood.

“While corporate types in the past have been maligned as elitist and often found themselves disadvantaged in the class-warfare political games, voters are now taking a second look at them,” said GOP strategist Cheri Jacobus.

“Someone who succeeds in business and who has created jobs is now viewed as possibly being just what Washington needs to hoist this nation out of the economic mess and perhaps instill a degree of fiscal sanity into the budget process. ‘Making money’ is no longer a slur in the new political lexicon.”

In Florida, veteran GOP lawmaker and state Attorney General Bill McCollum is being hard-pressed in Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary by challenger Rick Scott, a former health care executive and political neophyte, who has dumped $40 million of his own fortune into the race.

On the Democratic side, billionaire Jeff Greene is laying out a reported $24 million to challenge Rep. Kendrick B. Meek. The battle between long resumes and deep pockets has seesawed in both parties, said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Poor public speakers, Mr. Scott and Mr. Greene have been “all but invisible on the stump,” said Mr. Watson, but grabbed early leads in the polls.

“Now that folks are starting to pay attention, and even though they don’t like the establishment guys, they don’t like the new guys either,” Mr. Watson said. With the insiders now rebounding in the polls as the primary vote approaches, “the devil we know is sometimes preferable to the devil we don’t know.”

Corporate executives used to running their own operations don’t always make good candidates, he notes.

“If you think about campaigns from outsider corporate CEOs over the years, like Ross Perot, Michael Huffington, Steve Forbes and the like … they all turned out to take orders very poorly. This is the case with Greene and Scott, who make rookie mistakes all the time,” Mr. Watson said.

“Folks are turning to CEO types, but only certain CEO types, and these corporate outsiders must still play by the rules of politics: Build a grass-roots campaign, press the flesh, work the local clubs and be more than simply someone who isn’t a politician. Folks need a reason to vote for you, not just a reason to vote against your opponents.”

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About the Author
Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups is a Midwest-based national correspondent for The Washington Times. She is a native of West Virginia and received her undergraduate degree from Marshall University and her master’s degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her news career spans more than 20 years. She has reported for several newspapers, has edited two magazines and before joining the Times, ...

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