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Business backgrounds are working for first-time GOP candidates

Meg Whitman has spent $39 million of her eBay fortune on her campaign for governor of California, with more on the way.
Meg Whitman has spent $39 million of her eBay fortune on her campaign for governor of California, with more on the way. (Rich Pedroncelli/associated Press)
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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

Could 2010 be the year of the Republican businessman?

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Early returns in governors' and Senate races across the country show men and women who have spent their entire lives in the private sector making significant gains in their first runs for office.

Take Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief executive who has catapulted into a general-election lead over California Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) fueled by a sustained run of ads touting her business background. "The professional politicians have been fighting in Sacramento for years," Whitman says in one campaign ad. "I think a business perspective is a bit of what California needs right now."

Whitman is the best known but far from the only businessperson making waves in electoral politics this year.

Wealthy businessman Bill Binnie, regarded as the main threat to former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in the New Hampshire Republican primary for the seat being vacated by Sen. Judd Gregg (R), makes clear he plans to highlight his business background during the campaign.

In Michigan, Rick Snyder, a former Gateway computer company chief executive, has emerged as a serious contender for the Republican gubernatorial nod, thanks to a series of ads that tout his business experience and portray him as "one tough nerd."

Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon has taken the lead in Connecticut's Senate primary race against former representative Rob Simmons, while former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina finds herself in a jump-ball primary with former representative Tom Campbell in the California Senate contest. In Massachusetts, health-care executive Charlie Baker is in a tight three-way general-election battle with Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and state Treasurer Tim Cahill, running as an independent.

A few common threads run through the campaigns: a message that sending the same people to Washington won't produce different results and a significant outlay of personal money.

Whitman is in a class of her own when it comes to self-funding. She already has given her campaign $39 million, with much more to come, according to informed sources. McMahon has pledged to donate up to $50 million, while Snyder has given his campaign $2.6 million and Binnie has dumped more than $1 million of his money into the race.

Freed from the strictures of the never-ending hunt for campaign cash, these business candidates can push a fiscally focused message that, if polls are to believed, is what most Americans want to hear. "Most of my career has been about building companies and creating jobs," Binnie said in a recent interview. "I've seen a lot of life. That's part of who I am."

It's worth noting that the political world is littered with free-spending businesspeople who fell short in their runs for office -- often brought low by allegations of outsourcing and exorbitant salary payouts.

But, in a political environment where job approval numbers for Congress rarely crest the low teens and professional politicians are personae non gratae to voters, it may be that candidates with no experience in elective office but a strong string of successes in the business world will be the right fit for the electorate this fall.

If people such as Whitman, Snyder and Binnie wind up getting elected, look for some strategists within the Republican Party to float the idea of a businessman (or -woman) as a possible candidate for president in 2012.

Tea is for trouble

Hoping to counter the growing political power of the "tea party" movement, Democratic consultant Craig Varoga has formed an organization to target candidates who run under that banner for defeat.

Known as Patriot Majority PAC, the group was created in late 2009 and -- thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last week -- can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate.

"Americans need to confront the dangerous ideas of the tea party movement head-on, without any fear, before they gain any additional traction in the legislative process or the 2010 elections," said Varoga, who managed former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack's 2008 presidential race.

Varoga added that the group planned to concentrate its efforts, which are likely to include television and radio ads, on 12 to 15 races where a candidate affiliated with the tea party is running.

In addition, Varoga is hoping Patriot Majority can serve as a clearinghouse for tea party activity across the country. "We are asking all Americans to join us and oppose the extreme tactics of the tea party and the dangerous ideas behind them," he said.


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