Only eight current senators made it to Capitol Hill with no political experience. Eight out of 100.

May 20, 2014

This article has been corrected.

In the Republican primary for Georgia's open Senate seat, several recent polls have David Perdue, former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, up by about 8 percentage points. Rep. Jack Kingston, who has been in the House since 1993, trails Perdue by about 8 to 10 percentage points. Former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel has been making gains in the polls. Perdue is likely to face off with ones of these candidates in a runoff on July 22, and it's unclear the millionaire will be able to keep his lead once he's compared one-on-one with a candidate with more political experience.

Perdue likes to float a fact about current senate demographics when listing the reasons why he should be elected.


Source: David Perdue campaign Web site

About 10 current senators have business experience, by Perdue's qualifications. He argues on his Web site, "I don't think the Founders' ever envisioned the rise of the career politician. They wanted people from various backgrounds to bring their unique experience to representative government, help solve the issues of the day, and then return home."

Unfortunately, Perdue's logic hasn't had a successful run in the Senate lately. Only eight current senators joined the upper house without previously being elected to another political office -- as Election Lab collaborator Ben Highton discovered. Only one has come from the corporate sphere.


File: From left, Reps. Paul Broun and P.J. Gingrey, minister Derrick Grayson, Rep. Jack Kingston, Arthur Gardner, Karen Handel, and David Perdue stand at their podiums near the end of the Georgia Republican Party U.S. Senate Debate at the Columbia County Exhibition Center in Grovetown, Ga. on Saturday, April 19, 2014. (AP Photo/The Augusta Chronicle, Sara Caldwell)

Elizabeth Warren is the most recent example of a election novice winning a Senate seat. As a Harvard law professor and architect of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, she had some political experience, but policy is undoubtedly different from crafting talking points and stump speeches. Alex Morse, a 23-year-old who became mayor of Holyoke, Mass., in 2011, told a local newspaper, "I don't think having decades of political experience is necessarily an asset."

The swell of support Warren received from progressives and populists went a long way toward ensuring her victory.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) had a long political history prior to winning a Senate seat in 1996. She just didn't have much luck at getting elected. After holding several positions on Capitol Hill, in President George H.W. Bush's administration and in the Massachusetts State Treasury, Collins won a Republican primary in Maine's 1994 gubernatorial race. She lost in the general, coming in third behind Independent candidate Angus King, who would later work with her when they both reached the Senate.

Ron Johnson was elected as a Wisconsin senator in 2010. He previously worked in plastics. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, also elected in 2010, formerly was employed as a constitutional lawyer. He also clerked for Samuel Alito at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Al Franken, best known for his work on "Saturday Night Live," won an exceptionally close Minnesota Senate election in 2008.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte previously served as New Hampshire's attorney general, but it is an appointed position in the state. When she became senator in 2010, it was her first elected position.

And Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, often mentioned in 2016 presidential race gossip, had never held political office before winning their respective Senate seats in Kentucky and Texas in 2010. Paul was no campaigning novice, however, having accompanied his father on many of his perennial presidential tours. Cruz had a legal background more similar to Lee's.

Eight out of 100 aren't the most encouraging odds.

Since 1980, nine Democrats have won Senate seats without being elected to any previous offices. Fifteen Republicans have won Senate seats with no electoral victories at their back.

On the other hand, six of the examples of inexperienced candidates beating the odds have happened in the past four years. When Gallup asked Americans in early April what the most important problem facing the country was, "dissatisfaction with government" was in first place. Voters may be increasingly aware of candidates unaffiliated with something they deem the scourge of the nation, and something that once meant "lower name recognition and fewer contacts" may now be a boon.

However, Perdue's business experience — which he considers his greatest asset — may turn out to be a liability in the runoff for reasons other than historical precedent. The companies he has run, Reebok, Dollar General and Pillowtex, faced significant job losses in order to stay afloat. He also moved some jobs abroad. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney also relied on his business expertise to convince voters he could turn around the economy. His opponents' focus on the collateral damage of his decisions did not help his campaign, and Handel or Kingston would surely focus on these issues more closely when the runoff ballot is finalized. He may have no past votes to scrutinize, but his business career provides just as much insight into his decision-making process, and will be treated as such.

Many think that Kingston would take the lead once his fellow members of Congress have evaporated from the ballots. He has the most campaign money to spend at the moment, and was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce. Perdue, on the other hand, has led in the polls, and could pick up the supporters of Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey with his Washington outsider, down with Obamacare but up with jobs platform. As a millionaire, he would also have no problem giving his campaign a last-minute fundraising boost. Handel has the support of the tea party, including endorsements from Cruz and Sarah Palin. However, as Dave Weigel points out at Slate, none of the Georgia primary candidates is exactly running to the middle, and those who support the far right shouldn't have many qualms with Kingston or Perdue if paired against Handel. The race is very much up in the air, and Perdue's chances are nowhere near nil ... but they're in the same Zip code. 

Meanwhile, there is one thing that is certain. While the Republicans continue fighting one another through July, Democrat Michelle Nunn will be busy fundraising and focusing on November. Even if Perdue manages to vanquish all of his Republican opponents, the campaign will leave him facing a much stronger general election opponent. But, if he makes it that far, the unsupportive data about election newbies winning Senate seats will be in quite a pickle. Nunn has never run for office before either. But, like Rand Paul, her father, former Georgia senator Sam Nunn, has. Regardless of how the Georgia Republican Senate primary ends, the race is sure to end as a test of Perdue's theory of career politicians. Whether it works to his advantage, true or false, remains to be seen.

Correction: And we missed a couple! Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte had also never served in an elected position before winning in 2010. Adding them reinforces the argument about voters today being more prone to choosing those without previous careers in elected office. Will that help Perdue? We shall see. 

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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