Thursday, May 07, 2009

Anti-Establishment Candidates Come in All Shapes and Sizes

By Stuart Rothenberg

Senate primaries in three states already look like classic battles featuring insurgent candidates preparing to take on the preferred choice of “the establishment.” But each contest has its own particular features, and the three races may not produce identical outcomes.

Two of the contests are in Ohio. In the Democratic race, the party establishment has fallen behind Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who faces Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and a number of lesser-known candidates in a potentially heated primary. On the GOP side, former Rep. Rob Portman begins with a prohibitive advantage over wealthy businessman Tom Ganley.

In Missouri, Republican Party insiders have picked Rep. Roy Blunt to be their choice to hold retiring Sen. Kit Bond’s (R) seat, but former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman continues to look at a possible primary against Blunt.

Fisher, 57, served in both houses of the state Legislature and as Ohio’s attorney general before being elected lieutenant governor in 2006 on a ticket led by now-Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Strickland quickly endorsed Fisher’s bid for the Senate, and allies of the governor made it clear that Brunner should seek re-election rather than challenge Fisher for the Senate nomination.

But the secretary of state has other ideas.

Brunner, 52, worked in the Ohio secretary of state’s office — under now-Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) — before going into private practice. Later, she served for four years as a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, and in 2006, she was elected Ohio’s secretary of state.

Unlike Fisher, she has never lost an election. In 1994 (a horrendous year for Democrats), Fisher lost his bid for re-election as the state’s attorney general, and four years later, he lost an open-seat gubernatorial race to Bob Taft (R).

Surprisingly, given the lieutenant governor’s more frequent races and more extensive government service, Fisher and Brunner start off as virtually even in Quinnipiac University polling, both in the ballot test and in personal ratings. But Fisher held a substantial financial advantage at the end of the first quarter.

Brunner raised just $207,000 in the first quarter and ended March with $193,000 in the bank, while Fisher raised just over $1 million in the first three months of the year, ending March with $1 million on hand.

Still, I wouldn’t count Brunner out yet.

Ohio observers believe that Brunner has some national fundraising potential and will eventually earn the support of EMILY’s List, which is likely to help her raise considerable funds — at least enough to compete with Fisher. And those same observers believe that Brunner will be a more aggressive candidate than Fisher. In fact, most Republicans I spoke with expect her to be the Democratic nominee.

On the GOP side, Portman, 53, is a prohibitive favorite for his party’s nomination, but the prospect of him facing a wealthy businessman who may be willing to spend $8 million in a primary has some Republicans nervous.

A former Congressman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and U.S. trade representative, Portman has the backing of virtually the entire Republican establishment in the state. But part of his strength is a weakness: his extensive political experience and service in the administration of George W. Bush.

Ganley has no political record, but he also has no track record as a candidate. There is no way of knowing what kind of candidate he will be, whether he will actually spend millions and what kind of campaign he will cobble together. In any case, he’s not likely to upend Portman in a primary.

In Missouri, Blunt, 59, is the establishment choice for the GOP Senate nod. A former Missouri secretary of state, he was elected to the House in 1996 and served for a number of years as the party’s Whip. He lost a bid for Majority Leader in early 2006.

Blunt doesn’t yet have a major opponent for the Republican nomination, but Steelman, 50, certainly looks as if she will jump into the contest. She has already earned a reputation as an anti-establishment Republican.

Portraying herself as a “reformer,” Steelman brags about stopping payment on a check that constituted settlement of a sexual harassment complaint against the state agricultural director.

She publicly criticized the handling of the matter by then-Gov. Matt Blunt’s (R) administration, and she ruffled more establishment feathers last year when she ran in a primary against party insiders’ choice for governor, then-Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R). She lost that race by less than 5 points, a surprisingly narrow margin that demonstrates the appeal of her insurgent “reform” message.

Steelman lacks Blunt’s poise, and she isn’t as articulate as he is. But she also doesn’t have the heavy baggage that he does — his years in the GOP House leadership and the same last name as his son, Matt, who had a less-than-successful single term as governor. Whatever her weaknesses, Steelman isn’t burdened by the political liabilities that may make it difficult for Blunt to win a general election against the near-certain Democratic nominee, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

In a sense, Steelman, Ganley and Brunner are all “challengers,” since they are running against candidates who have the approval of party insiders and power brokers. The question is whether they will have the financial resources, candidate skills, campaign savvy and message to allow them to win primaries and then run formidable general elections. Right now, two of them appear to have the potential to do so.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on May 4, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.