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SPOTLIGHT
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Learning from the candidates

Published on -3/23/2014, 1:12 PM

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Any new reactionary movement involves a learning curve. The fervor of true outsiders leads them to reject everything about the existing structure they revolt against, even those things the old guard does well. That reactionary attitude is usually what ensures the outsiders will make mistakes while learning. For instance, movement conservatives have led an effort to drive the Republican Party towards hard-right outsiders since the Tea Party movement began in 2009. Some of the outsider candidates they have recruited have succeeded. But for the most part these outsider candidates have been disastrous examples of why, while the public might scream for new blood in politics, they crave the polish and strategic professionalism of traditional candidates.

The new breed of outsiders have now set their sights on Kansas, and so far the candidacy of Dr. Milton Wolf has shown the potential for the same kind of train wreck that plagued Tea Party-affiliated candidates in the last two cycles.

Wolf comes with all of the outsider bona fides that Tea Party organizations look for: success in private business, no political experience, and an extreme vocabulary that borders on inflammatory. The fact Wolf is a physician gives him a legitimate voice in opposing Obamacare, and his distant relation to the president likely makes Obama detractors giddy. Taking on the incumbent Republican in Kansas with the highest approval rating in Pat Roberts is tough enough, even if Roberts' numbers are below 50 percent and suggest electoral vulnerability. But Wolf has not been able to communicate that sense of Roberts' vulnerability to donors: Wolf took in less than a quarter million dollars from donors in the fourth quarter of 2013, just over one-third of Roberts' haul. And challengers who unseat incumbents generally must out-raise their in-office targets by a factor of 2-1 to merely be competitive.

Last week showed real weakness in Wolf's campaign: an unpolished and unprofessional communication style.

Professional campaigners spend significant time training candidates in saying the right thing and scrubbing their personal behaviors to ensure they do not get the campaign off-message.

Wolf, a physician, posted patients' X-Rays on his Facebook wall and made inappropriate comments about them. While not as patently damaging as Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell, or Richard Mourdock, they are enough to question Wolf's judgment, fitness, and ability to run an on-message campaign through the primary to capitalize on the one piece of opposition research they have released: Roberts' brief return trips to Kansas.

The common thread between O'Donnell and Wolf is that neither was experienced candidates and thus prone to gaffes. Even Mourdock, an experienced candidate, was a five-time loser before winning a low-profile statewide seat in Indiana. Initial success in primaries where less than 15 percent of the electorate vote is fine, but winning a statewide general election is much different. Wolf might repeat O'Donnell's fate: win the primary, implode in the general election, and hand what was a safe Republican seat to Democrats. Chad Taylor's candidacy is certainly indicative of the strategy: Taylor could whip Wolf in a general race, but would tilt at windmills against Roberts.

Despite efforts to convince voters a complete reset of Washington is in order starting with the people elected, voters do not trust the loose cannon nature of outside candidates. As a result, the usual outcome of elections they contest is a hard-fought and divisive primary leading to embarrassing defeats in November. Wolf and his untested brethren give movement conservatives hope that they can lead a revolution of outsiders in Washington. If the outsiders they want to elect are Democrats, then they're right. If not, then the lessons they need might be in the very candidates they want to expel.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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