The minute David Perdue won the Republican primary in Georgia, Democrats hit send on an email attacking his business career. At nearly 2,500 words, the blast arrived in my inbox from American Bridge, a liberal opposition research firm, outlining the jobs Perdue had cut and outsourced as a business executive. “Georgia, Meet Mitt Romney Lite,” was the headline.
Voters say they want politicians with a business background. In a recent Gallup poll, 81 percent responded that the country would be better governed if more people with business and management experience were elected. Voters prioritized that attribute far above every other. But that finding may only be a sign of the chasm between campaigning and governing, because while voters may like the idea of electing executives who have experience making tough decisions, campaign strategists see an opportunity to use those same decisions to portray candidates as callous, out-of-touch, and ignorant of middle-class needs.
In Georgia, Democrats are using the Romney boogeyman in an echo of the campaign the Obama team used to win the 2012 presidential election. That’s hardly surprising. What is more surprising is that Republican campaigns across the country are adopting the same Obama tactics against Democrats.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has been attacking the business record of his opponent, former Trek bicycle executive, Mary Burke. The Walker campaign ran an ad claiming that Burke made millions by shipping jobs overseas to countries where the minimum wage was as low as $2 an hour. Walker says it’s hypocritical since Burke is pushing for a minimum wage hike in Wisconsin. Another ad labels her an “outsourcer” and spells her name “Mary $ Burke.” President Obama and his allies made similar claims about Romney. Walker claimed Trek paid no corporate income taxes, an echo of Sen. Harry Reid’s unfounded smear about Romney.
Burke’s brother responded on behalf of the company in a full-page newspaper ad. He said he and not his sister, who ran the European division of the company, made decisions about where to locate jobs. Trek employs 1,000 workers in Wisconsin and 800 people outside the country, according to the company. Burke has tried to turn the attacks against Walker, saying that if he understood the way business works, he would understand that Wisconsin companies like Trek and Harley-Davidson need to manufacture around the world and that Trek pays taxes like many other businesses, where the owners pay taxes on the company’s profits as individuals rather than through corporate taxes.
A candidate’s business record is totally fair game, but attacks on business activity can quickly melt into a general attack on wealth. That’s certainly happening in Wisconsin. The state’s GOP is calling Burke “Millionaire Mary,” says she is a member of the “1 percent,” and posted pictures of her second home on a website devoted to making an issue of her wealth. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have also stapled net worth to the Democratic candidate for governor, who they refer to as “Millionaire Tom Wolf.”
These attacks are not subtle. Using dollar signs, bags of money, and millionaire as a pejorative plays to gut level resentments about wealth. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” says a campaign strategist involved in GOP opposition research. But the question for Republicans who use these tactics is not whether they are fair—rather the issue is one of ideological consistency. These attacks buy into and seek to profit from the idea that there is something immediately suspicious about a person of wealth. Usually conservatives label those tactics as un-American, charging that such appeals are seeking to penalize success.
If Republicans contribute to the claim that wealth is equated with not caring about the poor, then the GOP, as the party most associated with the wealthy, runs the risk of blowback. A CNN poll earlier this year asked which party favored the rich, and respondents answered by 69 percent to 30 percent that the Republicans did. Republicans already have a deficit with voters when it comes to questions about which party cares about the problems of regular people. In a CBS poll in May, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 10 points when asked which party cared about people like you and which party was more likely to help Americans get a fair chance to get ahead. That is why so many 2016 GOP presidential contenders are working to show that the Republican Party has a compassionate side.
Republicans making an issue of wealth is not unlike Republicans criticizing Democrats for cutting taxes. That’s why the Wall Street Journal called out Newt Gingrich and others during the 2012 GOP primary for attacking Romney’s career with “crude and damaging caricatures of modern business and capitalism.” Recently, Allysia Finley, also in the Wall Street Journal, rebuked Walker on the same terms. “Economic populism is usually the province of Democrats who don’t understand how free markets work or who cynically hope to exploit voters’ insecurities. Mr. Walker is better than that.”
Republicans used the anti-Romney playbook last year in the Virginia governor’s race, trying to make Terry McAuliffe’s business career an issue, but the attacks didn’t work. Charges of this sort work best when they support an underlying story about the candidate or his policies. Mitt Romney contributed to the characterization that he was disconnected from those in the middle class and most in need, most notably with the videotaped comments about the 47 percent who weren’t likely to vote for him. When he picked Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, someone who had also taken a dim view of those who used government services, it strengthened the connection in voter minds between wealth and stinginess. The 2012 exit poll found 53 percent said Romney’s policies generally favored the rich, 34 percent the middle class, and 2 percent the poor; for Obama, just 10 percent thought his policies favored the rich, 44 percent the middle class, and 31 percent the poor.
Republican Party officials have been relentless in attacking Hillary Clinton for her wealth since she claimed that she and her husband were “dead broke” after they left the White House. (They weren’t). Poorhillaryclinton.com launched this week. If this tactic gains traction, it might not be because it incites envy, but because it suggests she’s trying to pretend to be something she’s not, which goes to a longstanding weakness she has had on issues of honesty and trustworthiness.
Romney’s career at Bain Capital was an easier career to demagogue because venture capitalism is associated with Wall Street bankers—who are never popular (especially after a recession caused by risky financial instruments). Walker is taking a risk attacking a popular Wisconsin company, and his administration wasn’t always concerned about Trek’s outsourcing: They once touted the company, which Burke’s father started in a barn, as a sterling example of the state’s entrepreneurs and business success.
Before David Perdue won the Georgia GOP Senate primary, Democratic strategists were hoping to run against his Republican rival, Jack Kingston, a veteran congressman. It would be easier to run against his Washington insider status, they thought. Now they’ll have to run against Perdue as a fat cat. They’ve got a head start. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put out a two-minute video attacking Perdue as an out of touch millionaire and crony capitalist who punished workers and walked away with millions. It simply quotes his GOP primary opponents.