- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2010

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.”

Still, the executive-as-candidate model is catching on this election cycle.

In Wisconsin, newcomer Ron Johnson, a successful plastics manufacturing company executive from Oshkosh, has organized an unexpectedly strong campaign, running neck and neck with Democrat Russ Feingold, an 18-year Senate veteran.

“In a year where insider, professional-politician status has hit its nadir with voters, Johnson may be exactly what Wisconsin voters want — an amateur,” said conservative blogger Ed Morrissey, writing on HotAir.com.

California has two corporate titans — both female and both Republican — on the ballot in November. Former eBay head Meg Whitman is taking on Democrat Jerry Brown in the race for governor, and former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina is challenging three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat.

In Connecticut, GOP candidate Linda McMahon has pledged to spend up to $50 million of the fortune she amassed running a pro-wrestling circuit to defeat Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in November. Once dismissed as a political joke, Mrs. McMahon has closed a significant gap in the polls, and many expect a close race for the open Senate seat.

“In the 2008 presidential election, race was a big issue,” Ms. Jacobus said of the trend of executives entering politics. “Black, brown and white seemed to matter.

“In 2010, with the nation on the brink of economic disaster, green, the color of money, is what matters to voters.”

• Andrea Billups can be reached at abillups@washingtontimes.com.

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