Politics & Policy

Senate Candidates in the Trump Mold

Robert Blaha campaign ad (via YouTube)
They draw comparisons to Trump in style and substance.

Eschewing the rules of politics as usual, Donald Trump has defied political gravity in this election cycle. As the spotlight turns to down-ballot races, several self-funding businessmen in contested Senate and House races are hoping that a similarly distinctive outsider message and style will help them emerge from crowded primary fields.

There’s no question Republican voters have found that profile appealing so far this cycle. Trump’s campaign introduced new elements to public political discourse: Decrying political correctness, he leveled vulgarities and insults at his opponents and detractors. Other candidates might have been left apologizing; Trump clinched the nomination. But it remains to be seen whether this approach is something other candidates can harness with similar success, or a phenomenon unique to Trump’s specific brand of wealth, celebrity, and bluster.

Carlos Beruff in Florida and Robert Blaha in Colorado have evoked comparisons to Trump in both their substance and their style. Beruff, a wealthy real-estate developer, is running as the anti-politician in a crowded primary field that includes two sitting congressmen and the state’s lieutenant governor. His rhetoric, at times, seemed to echo Trump’s: In one of his ads, the longtime Republican-party donor declares, “Washington politicians are worthless.” He expressed the belief that it is not “safe to allow anybody from the Middle East into this country.” Earlier this week, he drew criticism when he described President Barack Obama as an “animal.”

Beruff in Florida and Blaha in Colorado have evoked comparisons to Trump in their substance and their style.

In Colorado, Blaha, a businessman, has attracted similar comparisons. His first commercial, from Fred Davis, an admaker known for his eyebrow-raising ads, features, in addition to a sea of bobblehead-doll senators, a doctor shoving a fist into a patient’s rear end. It’s an image meant to communicate the idea that customers wouldn’t pay for bad service – and neither should constituents. Like Trump, Blaha capitalizes on the issue of illegal immigration: He promises to serve only one term if, during that time, Congress can’t succeed in “cutting illegal immigration by 50 percent.”

“Why on earth do we keep sending bozos like Michael Bennet back to Washington when they fail to get anything done?” he asks in the ad, referring to the Democratic senator he hopes to challenge in the general election. “If I can’t make a difference, I’ll voluntarily come back after just one term,” he says.

Both Beruff and Blaha have said they’ll back Trump, but neither of their campaigns fully embraces the comparison to the presumptive GOP nominee. Beruff’s campaign sees its candidate as running more in the tradition of Florida governor Rick Scott — another self-funding businessman — than that of Trump. “I think Trump is the high-profile vessel of the anger and frustration that’s been building up in the Republican party for a long time,” says his communications director, Chris Hartline. Beruff’s mannerisms, his campaign says, are not Trump-like: They’re just the way Beruff is.

Blaha says Trump has marked a shift in the political winds in a favorable way for a candidate such as himself. “People are saying we want a different kind of individual,” he tells National Review. “How much of that is Trump? I don’t know. My gut says that a piece of it is. But I’ve got to tell you I’ve been hearing it for months and months and months before it really got to be the Trump show.”

As for the stylistic comparisons with Trump, Blaha says: “You won’t ever hear me talk about whether my wife’s prettier than your wife.” But, he says, “we’ve got a little edge.”

Both Beruff and Blaha are boosted by the success they’ve enjoyed in their business careers — and by the money they’ve earned. Both have used their personal fortunes to help fund their campaigns. Trump spent much of the presidential-primary season proudly touting his status as a self-funder. He bragged that, unlike his rivals, he had no super PAC supporting him and he was not beholden to any donors. His presence on the political stage has highlighted a shift in the way politicians talk about their wealth. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s fortune was often a subject of discomfort on the campaign trail. His multiple houses and the plans to install a car elevator in one of them were used to paint him as an out-of-touch member of the 1 percent.

Trump has done exactly the opposite: He owns his wealth — even brags about it. Down-ballot candidates have rarely boasted about their wealth to quite that degree or used it to make a political statement. In 2010, nowU.S. senator Ron Johnson, then the CEO of a Wisconsin manufacturing company, loaned his campaign nearly $9 million. But, he says, “I really don’t think it had an impact in the race other than that I had the resources to get the message out,” Johnson says.

David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, contributed $2.4 million to his 2014 Senate bid in Georgia, and loaned another $1.9 million to the campaign. Perdue, who joined a primary field that included three of the state’s sitting congressmen, says his money was necessary to put him on the map against opponents with a built-in advantage. “These guys would’ve had such a head start, it would’ve taken months, maybe a year, to try to raise that much to catch up with them,” he says in an interview on the Senate subway.

Perdue didn’t tout the fact that he was self-funding, but he didn’t shy away from his wealth. He “owned it,” says former representative Jack Kingston, who also ran for the open Senate seat. Kingston tried to attack Perdue for his past business dealings, saying in one ad, “Perdue got rich and left us with the mess,” and touting, in another, his own frugality. But Kingston fell second to Perdue, and looking back, he sees Perdue’s open embrace of his wealth and business career as “capturing the imagination” of voters, who saw in him not an elitist, but a sense of possibility.

Beruff has taken a similar tack. He is not touting the fact that he is self-funding his campaign with quite the same volume as Trump did, says Hartline, but “when it comes up, I think people react fairly well to that. I think they like the idea of someone who’s not beholden to anyone.”

Colorado holds its Senate primary at the end of June, while Florida’s is not until the end of August, so it will be a while before anyone can definitively say whether Trump has further opened the door for wealthy businessmen to follow in his footsteps.

“I’m not persuaded yet that the sort of Trump imitators are going to be particularly successful this year beyond what they would anyway,” says one GOP strategist, noting that it’s been helpful to be an outsider in the past, and it’s not clear that anyone can harness the uniqueness of the Trump phenomenon.

Already, at least one similar effort to harness that outsider sentiment has failed. Kip Tom, an agribusiness executive, lost a primary in Indiana’s 3rd District earlier this month to a state senator. Tom ran as the consummate outsider, attacking his three opponents in an ad as “career politicians” who “just keep running for office.” Tom came close, but lost to Jim Banks, a state senator who had the backing of the Club for Growth.

If Trump’s success transfers down ballot, it could mark a change in Republican politics. Successful outsider challenges of the past have come with a heavy helping of conservative purity. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee all toppled the favored candidate in their Senate races by running to the candidate’s right. They ran as outsiders, to be sure, but they were outsiders of a specific ideological type.

At the top of the ticket this year is another type of outsider. Trump’s success can hardly be seen as an expression of a desire for ideological purity, as the candidate has repeatedly strayed from Republican orthodoxy. If that same sentiment motivates people in voting for Senate and House candidates, it could be a sign that it is not just Trump’s je ne sais quoi that has drawn people in, but rather, that many Republican voters have lost faith in the notion that any political ideology can heal what ails Washington, D.C. and the political system.

“I think a lot of people, voters, are being more motivated with their frustration with Washington and the political class than they are by their ideology,” says Perdue.

The difference between Trump and past businessman-outsider candidates like Perdue is that Trump has added a new element to the formula. Past candidates pitched themselves as people who could their business experience to fix the problems of Washington. Trump, as one GOP consultant put it, just promised “to burn the party to the ground.”

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