You are a campaign manager in the hypothetical, average, up-in-the-air congressional district this year. You have been given the choice of endorsement by any of the four politicos on 2008 presidential election party tickets. Would your campaign get the best boost from: A) Barack Obama: current president, 6 years within the beltway, 45% approval rating. B) Joe Biden: vice president, 37 years within the beltway, drops the occasional F bomb at news conferences; C) John McCain: 2008 defeated presidential candidate, 28 years within the beltway, up for Senate re-election this year; D) Sarah Palin: 2008 defeated VP candidate, 3 years as Alaska Governor (resigned), relates herself and female political friends to grizzly bears.
In 2008 all conventional political wisdom would likely point to A. In 2010, the year of the political outsider, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would not jump at having choice D to bail them out, just ask choice C. After it became imminent that fellow long-time southwest Republican Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) was on his way to be unseated in his state’s party primary for “not being conservative enough,” many in the McCain camp and national media saw the 2008 GOP presidential nominee as vulnerable in his primary reelection. In late March, McCain called in the big guns with the leather-laced and rousing Sarah Palin appearing at a nationally covered McCain fundraiser. Since then, McCain’s campaign did not look back. After just around 50% support from one early poll, McCain bested ultra conservative radio shock jock J.D. Hayworth by over twenty percentage points (56 to 32) at the polls in the Republican primary on August 24, 2010.
The year thus far in electoral politics has been defined by the influx of adamantly outsider candidates and enthusiastically anti-beltway sentiments. Going beyond being a minor thorn in the side of incumbents and candidates hand picked by the party establishment, these so-called political outsiders have managed to piece together exuberant contributions, national PR, and a better than average track record in primaries thus far. It’s hard to put the finger on a definition or set of instructions for the successful outsider campaign; anything too uniform would no longer constitute as outsider. But what separates a Scott Brown from a Marlin Stutzman? A Mike Lee from a Steve Levy? What has worked, and what has failed for non-traditional candidates in primaries this year?
Well, as mentioned earlier, it helps to have friends in high places, say…Alaska. The golden ticket for GOP insurgents, a Sarah Palin endorsement, has already catapulted outsider and Tea Party leaning candidates to fifteen primary wins in comparison to three losses in races across the country. Through endorsements and SarahPAC support collectively accumulating thus far over $2 million, Palin has come to the aid of nearly 50 Republican gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and U.S. House candidates. Self-described as, “dedicated to building America’s future, supporting fresh ideas and candidates who share our vision for reform and innovation,” SarahPAC support has been essential to successful GOP outsider campaigns this year.
Supporting the outsider challenge to establishment comes naturally for Palin, given that she herself unseated a Republican incumbent to become Governor of Alaska prior to her appointment on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket. In 2006 Palin unseated incumbent Governor Frank Murkowski, whom she at one time campaigned for, on her way to the Governor’s igloo. Come full circle, Palin has recently endorsed a small Fairbanks lawyer, Joe Miller, over Frank Murkowski’s daughter Lisa whom the latter appointed in 2002 when he went from Senator to the state’s Governor.
Tea Party favorite and ardent conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has developed the Senate Conservative Fund PAC, which has put conservative outsider candidates over the top in primaries likewise to the effect of the SarahPAC. Dubbed “The Kingmaker” by Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, with his SCFPAC DeMint has aided and endorsed successful outsider GOP primary candidates Sharron Angle (NV), Mike Lee (UT), and Rand Paul (KY). Outsider and Tea Party favorites Ken Buck (CO) and Marco Rubio (FL) have also been supported by the SCFPAC, and are leading polls for their late August primaries as we speak. According to OpenSecrets.org SCFPAC has spent $3,336,228, including $10,000 each to the Marco Rubio and Chuck Devore Senate campaigns.
SarahPAC and the SCFPAC raise the question of what has been of greater value in 2010 for Republican candidates; support from Tea Party groups and like-minded PACs or the RNC? Bob Bennett (UT), Charlie Crist (FL), and Sue Lowden (NV) are just a few of the RNC-backed candidates to be pushed out of GOP primaries by SarahPAC and SCFPAC supported candidates. Lack of success for National Senatorial Committee backed candidates has not solely been a problem for Republicans. Populist candidates mobilizing the current voter frustration towards all those associated within the beltway have trumped DNC-backed candidates Elaine Marshall in North Carolina and Vic Rawl in South Carolina, as well as nearly taking down incumbent Sen. Blanch Lincoln (DAR). What else has hurt DNC-backed candidates? Once being Republican.
Barack Obama has put more personal stake in the Pennsylvania and Colorado Democratic Senate primaries than any others this year. Heavy endorsement from the president and colleagues in Congress could not save Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) from defeat at the hands of Rep. Joe Sestak (DPA) in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. Voters have supported politicians frustrated with their national party leadership, but have not rallied behind those who joined the opposite side. Like Sen. Arlen Specter (D (formerly R)-PA), incumbent party flopper Rep. Parker Griffith (R (formerly D)-AL) was unseated in his party primary. The freshman Rep. Griffith would lose to the Tea Party-backed Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks by nearly 20 percentage points.
The party flop technique to seize political opportunity has also failed for outsiders such as Steve Levy, who challenged establishment candidate Rick Lazio for Governor of New York. After getting heavy media exposure upon entering the race, the former Democratic Suffolk County legislator turned GOP insurgent saw his campaign flounder at the state Republican convention. Changing parties in attempt to catch the right political tide, or making any type of scene, has not been successful for outsider candidates.
When a voter first hears your name on national news in regard to a viral campaign ad, things may not be moving in your direction. Out of touch and outlandish viral ads and media gaffes have served critical if not terminal blows, to several outsider campaigns these primaries. Voters have reacted positively to frustration, but some have taken it too far.
It seems Alabama primaries from Governor to Agriculture commissioner served as a tinderbox for these types of viral ads that would overload and break down campaigns. Tim James’s controversial English-only language ad in the GOP primary race for Alabama Governor took him from a candidate in a close 3-way runoff to out of the race. Alabama GOP congressional candidates Les Phillip and Rick Barber also produced borderline freaky ads that made it to national media, in turn effectively melting down their campaigns. Voters in Alabama’s 2nd district did not relate to Barber’s ad in which he delivered a pep talk in a frustrated political huddle with the founding fathers. Attacking President Obama as someone who “played with terrorists and allowed his America-hating pastor to baptize his children” backfired on candidate for Alabama’s 5th congressional district seat Les Phillip.
There may not be set rules for the 2010 outsider campaign, but definitely a degree of etiquette for success. While running as “outsiders,” successful non-traditional candidates this primary season have unified behind community Tea Party movements and likeminded national level conservative leaders such as Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). Voters have rejected and seen through the party flip floppers and ridiculous viral ads which have been a little too outsider for success.
The question now is if the outsider who is successful in a primary can relate to voters in the general election. Judging by the lead taken by once written off Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) in recent polls over the epitome outsider candidate Sharron Angle, the establishment may have the last laugh.