CHICAGO—Of all the negative campaign messages that Democrats have used this midterm election, the most effective one is a time-tested line of attack: hitting Republican businessmen for being exorbitantly wealthy while outsourcing jobs overseas and laying off employees. It was President Obama’s central argument in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney, and it is being put to devastating use again in a handful of close gubernatorial and congressional races this year.
More than any of the other well-worn Democratic arguments—Republicans want to restrict access to abortion, they’re beholden to the agenda of the Koch brothers, and so on—this argument is successfully persuading undecided voters in close races.
In Illinois, businessman Bruce Rauner looked likely to unseat one of the most unpopular Democratic governors, Pat Quinn. But since a monthlong ad blitz portraying Rauner as the second coming of Romney, the Republican now narrowly trails in recent public polls. The spots, airing on Chicago television, have been merciless to the first-time candidate. One highlights his $140,000 membership in an exclusive wine club. Another potent hit alleges that Rauner demeaned a female executive for refusing to lay off workers (a charge Rauner dismissed as “baloney” in Tuesday night’s debate).
“Rauner’s companies laid off millions while he made millions,” blared a headline in another ad, which accuses the Republican of shipping jobs to China and India, using accounting tricks to avoid taxes, and stashing funds in the Cayman Islands—all while the patriotic anthem “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” plays in the background.
The concept of playing patriotic music while unleashing a fusillade of personal attacks was pioneered by Obama’s media consultant Larry Grisolano, whose most memorable presidential ad featured Romney singing “America the Beautiful” while text attacking his wealth and business record flashed across the screen. Quinn is taking a page directly from that Obama playbook.
“Pat’s been on very familiar turf running a populist campaign,” said Grisolano, who worked on Quinn’s 2010 race but isn’t a part of the reelection effort. “In these industrial Midwestern states, it’s got a little extra edge. I don’t think you’re disqualified if you come from that [business] background, but the burden of proof is going to be a bit higher to prove your heart and plans and intentions are in the right place.”
All told, it’s transformed the image of Rauner, an accomplished venture capitalist and admired philanthropist, into a corporate villain. A Chicago Sun-Times poll released this week showed Quinn narrowly leading Rauner by 3 points, with the governor pulling ahead on the question of who most understands voters’ everyday concerns.
“Pat Quinn running a populist campaign against a billionaire is like asking a dog to lick its balls. That’s just nature taking over,” said Democratic strategist Tom Bowen, a former political director for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Because voters expect something different from their governors, these issues are particularly potent.”
The same types of populist attacks against GOP businessman haven’t been limited to Obama’s home state. They’ve been used by Democrats to make surprising inroads in the Georgia Senate race, to undermine top GOP gubernatorial candidates in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and to pummel a leading congressional challenger who was once best known for his resemblance to Brad Pitt. Republicans have gotten traction in these races by criticizing Democrats’ fiscal stewardship or support for raising taxes, so Democrats are firing back with withering attacks on their business backgrounds.
In Georgia, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced Tuesday it was spending an additional $1 million in the GOP-leaning state, amid signs that Democrat Michelle Nunn was gaining ground against Republican David Perdue. Nunn’s latest ads have focused on Perdue’s history of outsourcing as a CEO of Dollar General, with one citing a report from a 2005 deposition where he said he “spent most of [his] career” engaging in the practice. The ad’s tagline: “David Perdue, he’s not for you.” An automated SurveyUSA poll released Wednesday showed Nunn leading for the first time in months, up 3 points on Perdue. One Democratic operative told National Journal that their internal tracking showed Nunn pulling ahead of Perdue, a reversal from earlier polling showing her trailing