Two years ago, an outsider Republican businessman with deep pockets but no political experience won a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. Now Democrats seem poised to try their own variation of that script.
Jim Barksdale, the president of an Atlanta investment firm, is said by multiple Democratic operatives to be the party-backed candidate to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. And with his expected entrance into the race this week, he’ll be among a slew of political outsiders hoping to show off their lack of political experience as an advantage.
Some of the contenders filing to run for office this week, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, want to ride the coattails of Donald Trump, the billionaire who won a resounding victory in last week’s Georgia primary, or follow the playbook of the jean-jacketed David Perdue, who swept establishment-backed candidates in 2014 to win an open U.S. Senate seat.
“Trump is proving that a lot of silent majority outsiders out there are coming out for Republicans,” said Eugene Yu, a businessman with no political experience who is taking a second stab at an Augusta-based U.S. House district. “The political establishment should listen to what Donald Trump says.”
But bottling that outsider magic isn’t so simple. Republican operative Todd Rehm said the Trump phenomenon has “birthed a cycle’s worth of pretenders to the outsider throne,” much like President Barack Obama’s victory eight years ago inspired imitators.
“In 2010, countless GOP candidates said they wanted to run a campaign like Obama ran in 2008,” Rehm said. “The predictable results were facile imitations without the substance and rocket science that propelled Obama into the White House. I saw a lot of blue websites that cost too much that year.”
A handful seem willing to try. Jim Pace, a business executive running in a conservative U.S. House district, proudly labels himself an “outsider” on his campaign material. And Jay Lowe sent a blaring alert that he’s running for an open state House seat in Gwinnett County because he’s “tired of professional politicians.”
Lowe, who owns a Gwinnett sign company, said Tuesday that Perdue was the first candidate in Georgia to make the forceful case that re-electing longtime incumbents “will get us nowhere.”
“I think people have reached the point where they see what they have gotten listening to professional politicians with their little cookie-cutter sound bites,” said Lowe, adding: “I’m going to take that weak mentality head on, and I believe the voters of this district will be open to my message. It’s just common sense.”
As if to reinforce the point, he hired Trump’s one-time state director, Seth Weathers, to spearhead his campaign.
Some Democrats see their own opening. Brenda Lopez, an attorney vying to be the only Latina in the Georgia Legislature, talks repeatedly about the fresh take she’ll bring to the Georgia statehouse if she’s elected.
“I am bringing a fresh perspective,” Lopez said shortly after qualifying this week. “Our message is an inclusive one, and what people want in the district is a vocal advocate.”
Of course, the message can backfire. U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a member of the insurgent House Freedom Caucus that swept Speaker John Boehner from office, now finds himself in the cross hairs. He’s attracted at least one conservative challenger in the May 24 GOP primary.
“I’ve only been there a year. We are still outsiders. But we’ve done everything we said we would,” said Loudermilk, adding: “We knew this was coming. The people are angry. They’re upset. And the previous leadership didn’t hear them.”
That’s the same dynamic facing Isakson, a two-term incumbent who enjoys high name recognition, popularity across the aisle — and more than $5.5 million in his campaign stash. Yet he could face a backlash from Republican voters who, in poll after poll, express disgust with the Washington establishment.
Barksdale’s backers hope that the growing likelihood of Trump or Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz securing the Republican nomination could so infuriate Democrats and alienate mainstream Republicans that he has a chance to flip an otherwise safe GOP Senate seat.
While Republicans have gravitated toward outsider candidates, though, exit polls show an overwhelming majority of Georgia Democrats want their contenders to have political experience. And Isakson has made it difficult for opponents to tie him to Trump by highlighting his work with Democrats and stressing the consensus-building part of the job.
Still, Barksdale has something few others can boast: the ability to pump millions of dollars of his own money into the campaign. For the overwhelming majority of candidates without that kind of financial might, operatives say the trapping of a traditional campaign — think get-out-the-vote efforts and media messaging — still reign supreme.
“If you tell me you want to run a ‘Trump-style’ campaign, I’ll suggest you get in your private jet, fly to Macon and meet me along with 7,000 of your closest friends and all the national media,” Rehm said. “If you can’t do that, you can’t run a Trump-style campaign.”
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