If you have been watching the midterm elections closely, you have seen how Republican candidates are leaning left in order to take control of the Senate, how they are hugging Social Security and avoiding actual policy proposals that would ruin any chance to win votes beyond their right-wing base.
In many close races Republicans are also looking to exploit the electorate’s populist mood, whenever possible criticizing links to corporations and attacking wealth.
In New York’s 19th congressional district, Republicans using the fossil fuel investments of Democrat Sean Eldridge’s wealthy husband to label him a “hypocrite.” (The campaign notes that his husband’s portfolio is managed by an independent advisory company.) But one gets the impression the GOP really just wanted an excuse to display eye-popping dollar amounts on the screen.
Also in upstate New York, farther north in the 21st, Republicans are mocking Democrat Aaron Wolf as a “millionaire filmmaker from Brooklyn” who runs a “boutique grocery store” that was sued for not properly paying overtime. (The case was settled, and Wolf wasn’t handling the daily management of the establishment.)
The ad contrasts Wolf with the Republican candidate whose “family has run a local small business.” This breezes past the fact that she did not run a local small business, she worked in the Bush White House. And it leaves out that the business has been sued seven times.
But details, schmetails.
In the North Carolina Senate race, Republicans are eager to highlight incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan’s wealth – she’s one of the Senate’s top ten wealthiest – by way of trumping up the fact that her husband’s company received federal stimulus funds. (There’s no evidence that the senator was involved or that the grants were improperly received. Sen. Hagan had consulted with an ethics attorney before the company pursued the grant.)
It’s not surprising that a campaign would try to gin up a scandal. But the GOP could have done that without first mentioning that “Hagan’s family is worth up to $50 million.” They did, because they want to reap the benefits of class resentment.
Will this work? We know of one example where it surely won’t.
In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, the incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett has trailed significantly in every poll taken this year, as voters are done with his right-wing policies.
What hasn’t saved Corbett’s flailing campaign are his attacks on the Democratic nominee Tom Wolf, who he routinely describes as a “multimillionaire.”
The latest Corbett ad accuses Wolf of getting “rich” “off the backs of middle class taxpayers” by taking government pension funds, then laying off workers.
And I’ve recently mentioned, Wolf is not suffering any backlash over his wealth because he has a powerful story to tell about how he has invested in the well-being of his workers: “At my company, I paid my workers a living wage, gave them great benefits, and even shared 20 to 30 percent of my profits with them.”
Not every wealthy candidate is a business owner, let alone a business owner who doesn’t scrimp on his or her employees. But it’s a reminder that mere possession of wealth is not what upsets the progressive populists. Rather, what the populist wave challenges is a rigged game that benefits the few and weakens the pillars of middle-class stability.
The Republicans get this on one level, hence the attempts to exploit the public mood with examples of “hypocrisy” and scandal. Yet despite knowing that the public hates the rigged game, they never bother with proposing policies that would unrig it. That reluctance may make riding the populist wave a difficult maneuver for the GOP to sustain.