U.S. Senator Scott Brown’s historic victory in Massachusetts served notice to politicians across the nation: Republicans can do populism, too. Amid waves of economic discontent, Mr. Brown’s everyman image and populist rhetoric on taxes and spending propelled his candidacy in a manner not seen since 1994’s Republican Revolution.
In attempting to learn the right lessons, Republicans and Democrats alike seem to have picked up on this theme. Even President Barack Obama has retooled his public rhetoric, with a recent speech in Ohio featuring the promise to “fight” for working-class Americans a full 20 times .
But here in Connecticut, the unrepentant “Land of Steady Habits,” several of the most prominent statewide candidates for governor and U.S. Senate are, indisputably, just the sort of wealthy Greenwich businesspeople that other politicians are campaigning against: Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, former WWE CEO Linda McMahon, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, and Cable TV magnate-turned-liberal superhero Ned Lamont.
Believable populists aren’t easily cut from such cloth.
Democrats Blumenthal and Lamont seem more likely to pull off the feat. As Attorney General, Blumenthal has spent two decades mastering such rhetoric in front of every television camera he could find and Lamont’s rise to fame as a darling of liberal bloggers and anti-war activists polished his populism beyond a persona which might otherwise scream “effete.”
Senator Brown’s success aside, the task seems more challenging for the Republicans. In her former role as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, Linda McMahon proved herself wildly successful at selling to blue-collar audiences and her U.S. Senate campaign has already enshrined her “up from bankruptcy” story as a core message. But she’s pushing that message in what could end up as a $50 million campaign blitz – hardly the stuff of working moms and dads anywhere.
As a prominent fundraiser for Republican causes and a former Ambassador to Ireland, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley is an equally unlikely populist. But his campaign manifesto, dubbed “A Plan Forward for Connecticut,” is heavy on working family appeals and television advertising already features the candidate clad in a barn coat and blue jeans.
The collective strength of these candidates is the ability to marshal vast sums of resources toward their political endeavors. In an era in which the dissemination of information has become so diffuse, the lowest common denominator remains expensive television advertising and, as a result, the importance of such resources has rarely been greater.
But the defeated Bay State Democrat Martha Coakley didn’t suffer from a lack of resources; she suffered from a lack of appeal to the times. The issue isn’t class consciousness per se, but rather that such candidates can easily find themselves in the unenviable position described by the French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
Whether any of these candidates can capture the populist mantle and ride it to victory a la Senator-elect Brown remains very much to be seen. The candidates that best capture the sentiment and co-opt it into the organizing principle for their candidacy will likely be the ones with the biggest smiles on election night in November.
Heath W. Fahle is a policy analyst and consultant based in Manchester. His background in political campaigns includes work for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and the Connecticut Republican Party. He is also the principal of Revolutionary Strategies, LLC, a website design and consulting firm. Learn more at http://www.heathwfahle.com