Individuals who succeed in getting into what some have called the world’s most exclusive club, otherwise known as the United States Senate, have usually spent years climbing the political ladder. The most common stepping stone to the Senate is service either as a governor or a member of the U.S. House. Those who make the transition from the governorship to the Senate have the advantage of having already won election by the same constituency that determines their fate in the Senate campaign. House members, except in tiny states with a single representative, have name recognition with only a fraction of the state’s electorate. But based on their House service, they can speak knowledgeably about many of the policy options before Congress.

A more challenging path to the Senate extends from success in something other than politics. John Glenn went from astronaut to senator and Jim Bunning moved from the pitchers’ mound to the Senate. S. I. Hayakawa traded in his academic robes as president of San Francisco State University to become a senator while Herb Kohl owned the Milwaukee Bucks before and during his tenure in the Senate.

Kohl is one of those who came to the Senate after a career of making money. He was joined there by New Jersey’s John Corzine who spent $62 million of the money he earned at Goldman Sachs to get to Washington. Other wealthy novices include Chuck Percy (R-IL) and recently Ron Johnson (R-WI) who left the corporate suite for the Senate cloakroom.

Candidates with a business background often tell voters that the talents that paid them handsome dividends can be used to make government more efficient. And while these entrepreneurs would refuse to hire a newly-minted MBA as their firm’s chief financial officer, they try to make their lack of a political pedigree an asset by arguing that it gives them a unique perspective.

As a result of the primary, Georgia voters will have a chance to send a wealthy businessman to the Senate. David Perdue still confronts multiple hurdles but he cleared the first one with a four-percentage point plurality as he advances to the runoff for the GOP nomination.

Unlike in some other states, the Georgia electorate has not welcomed individuals who try to translate business success into political success. During the last generation, multiple candidates in both parties have discovered that the talents that enabled them to make money did not make the voters like them.

During the 1990s Guy Millner ran statewide three times, twice for governor and in between those losses he fought Max Cleland for the retiring Sam Nunn’s Senate seat. Millner poured millions of his own dollars into these campaigns and came close both in Zell Miller’s reelection bid and against Cleland. His Senate effort proved his strongest as he held Cleland to a plurality victory of 1.4 percentage points. (This election took place after Democrats who saw Paul Coverdell overtake Sen. Wyche Fowler in a general election runoff in 1992 lowered the threshold for success in a general election to 45 percent; a change reversed by Republicans once they assumed control of state government.)

Michael Coles, whose name graces Kennesaw State’s business school, made a fortune as founder of the Great American Cookie Company. Although he had sufficient dough, he failed in two bids for office. He lost to Newt Gingrich when he tried to unseat the Speaker of the US House in 1996. His willingness to take on the speaker in a secure GOP district earned Coles a second chance. Two years later he faced another incumbent Sen. Paul Coverdell. Although Coles did better in the statewide contest, he still came up seven percentage points short.

Roger Kahn, who made a fortune in the liquor business, also made two attempts to get to Congress. In 2000 he took on three-term incumbent Bob Barr but managed just 44.7 percent of the vote. Kahn’s chances appeared better in 2002 when he ran for the open seat in the newly created 11th District, a district Democrats in the General Assembly designed to elect a Democrat. Kahn succeeded in thwarting the comeback bid of former Rep. Buddy Darden in the primary only to be upset by 4,300 votes in the general election by Phil Gingrey.

Cliff Oxford, who made a fortune creating a technical support company, entered the 2004 Senate race late. Unlike other unsuccessful millionaires, Oxford never got to go head-to-head against a nominee of the opposition party. Oxford’s ambitions crashed when he managed barely 40 percent of the vote losing to Rep. Denise Majette in the Democratic runoff.

The historical record shows that success in the corporate world and the ability to self-finance stemming from that success is linked to defeat, not victory, in Georgia politics. While events from the past can be instructive, they need not be predictive. The context in which David Perdue competes differs from those associated with previous defeats of the wealthy. If Perdue manages to hold on to his primary lead and win the GOP nomination, he will carry the standard of what has been Georgia’s dominant party. Previous entrepreneurs who sought public office, with the exception of Roger Kahn in 2002, represented the minority party in the constituency they sought to represent or faced an incumbent of the other party.

In every instance in which wealth was associated with defeat the moneyed candidate faced an experienced politico. Millner lost to Zell Miller, Max Cleland and Roy Barnes, each of whom had multiple campaigns under his belt. Gingrey advanced to Congress after years as a Georgia legislator. Only Oxford faced an opponent with a short political resume but Majette had succeeded in knocking off five-term incumbent Cynthia McKinney to get to Congress.

While success in politics, like in most other pursuits, involves a learning curve, Perdue, in his well-received television advertising has tried to make office holding a liability as he contends that to break the gridlock in Washington requires an outsider. The widespread anti-government mood suggests that political experience is undervalued today. The Tea Party movement, although having scored few successes thus far in 2014, shows that a component of the electorate responds favorably to an anti-incumbent message. If some of the diverse Tea Party elements endorse Perdue, might that deliver enough of Karen Handel’s votes to secure the nomination? Of course, if Perdue becomes the GOP nominee, neither he nor November opponent Michelle Nunn brings office holding experience to the contest.

Being an outsider played well for Perdue in the primary and Nunn’s ads have also stressed the need to get new perspectives in Washington. There are, however, potential problems that accompany the political novice. Most of us have never had to worry about nuanced interpretations of our every utterance. But with recording capability on every cell phone, any statement made by a candidate may be recorded and, as Mitt Romney discovered with his 47 percent statement, become campaign fodder. Unforced errors can doom a career as then Senator George Allen’s (R-VA) macaca reference showed. Guy Millner might have become governor had he not told University of Georgia Republicans that he would not waste his time campaigning in small towns like Vidalia. David Perdue stumbled when he asserted the need for a senator to have at least a college degree. Experienced politicians are not immune to statements that dog their campaigns but are less likely to let harmful words escape their lips than are those new to the game.

Heightened press scrutiny constitutes a second potential stumbling block for the political novice. Running for high office, by definition, makes one newsworthy. Experienced office holders have been extensively vetted although even they come in for more intensive examination as they seek higher office. An old tax lien, court records from a messy divorce, a legal dispute with a business partner or employees may be uncovered in the course of opposition research and shared with the press. The last minute revelation of a decades’ old DUI arrest may well have kept George W. Bush from winning a plurality of the popular vote in 2000.

Outsiders can bring new ideas but also handicaps. Only one of the three remaining major party candidates for the Senate, Kingston, has served in Congress. He alone has a record and, if promoted to the Senate, can be expected to continue with the policy stands that have marked his two decades in the House. Less is known about how Perdue or Nunn would vote on issues coming before the Senate although each is unlikely to stray far from his or her party.

The Senate places a premium on political experience. Seniority, while not as determinative of committee assignments today as in the past, remains important when committee vacancies get filled and determine the location of a senator’s office and desk on the floor. For sitting senators seniority is based on years in the chamber. Among newcomers, Kingston, if elected, would have a leg up since years of service as a member of the House or as a governor are used to distinguish among the members of a class all of whom begin service on the same day. Kingston might be the highest ranked member of the class of 2015 which could ensure him his top committee pick. Nunn or Perdue, with no previous office holding, would be among the lowest-ranking members.

Charles S. Bullock, III is the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at The University of Georgia and Co-author of Elections to Open Seats in the U.S. House: Where the Action Is. He is considered one of the nation’s leading experts in the area of Political Science and is a frequent contributor to InsiderAdvantage.


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