Heath Shuler is the kind of candidate who appeals to the conservative voters in the mountains of western North Carolina. The former University of Tennessee football star and a top NFL draft pick has made millions in real estate and land development, boosting his payroll from 3 to 250 in just eight years. Now he has set his sights on a seat in Congress. "I'm pro-business, pro-life, and pro-gun," he says.
What's so unusual about that? Shuler is a Democrat -- one of several business executives joining the Democratic team for Election '06. Faced with daunting Republican financial advantages, Democratic leaders are betting that candidates with bottom-line experience can make their party competitive in a handful of districts that otherwise would lean Republican.
Already, eight new recruits have suited up. The business Democrats "have an ability to talk about economic development, creating jobs, and balancing budgets in a way that other Democrats can't," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. "They can attract swing voters and a portion of the business community that traditionally supports Republicans."
There's another advantage: Business Dems often can raise big bucks. Shuler, 34, reports $248,957 cash on hand in his latest disclosure -- vs. $19,369 for Republican incumbent Charles H. Taylor. The Democrat's donor list crosses party lines. One contributor, Tennessee construction company chief executive Sidney A. Blalock, had given only to Republicans since 1999.
Democratic bigwigs relish that crossover appeal -- even if some recruits stray from party orthodoxy. "There's no checklist that you have to run on," says Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). "They've got to represent their districts."
So while Shuler is a cultural conservative, former Microsoft (MSFT) executive Darcy Burner is a pro-choice social liberal and a self-described "credentialed geek." That's a plus in suburban Seattle, where she is challenging freshman Republican Dave Reichert. Georgia Berner, CEO of a manufacturing company in New Castle, Pa., criticizes GOP incumbent Melissa Hart for backing trade deals that weaken U.S. manufacturers. And Russ Warner, who built one of the nation's largest magazine distribution companies, is running as a champion of entrepreneurs in a suburban Los Angeles district dotted with small businesses.
Backers don't always realize these candidates are Democrats. Christine Jennings went to work as a bank teller at age 17 and three decades later founded Sarasota Bank. Former Sarasota (Fla.) Mayor Mollie Cardamone, a longtime Republican, bought the bank's stock at $10 per share in 1992 and sold it for more than $62 in 2003. When Jennings, 59, first declared for the seat of Republican Representative Katherine Harris, Cardamone was shocked to learn that the fiscal conservative was a Democrat. But she's so sold on Jennings that she switched parties to vote for the banker in the Democratic primary. "She appeals to moderate Republicans who can't support 'serious Democrats' who give away everything in the world," says Cardamone.
One of the business Dems, Timothy Mahoney, chairman of Boca Raton-based brokerage vFinance Inc., was a moderate Republican -- until the national GOP moved further to the right. Now he thinks his compatriots have plenty to offer. "We understand this New Economy," he says. "We know a lot about creating jobs and building businesses."
Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has never been considered a go-to guy for Big Business on Capitol Hill. After all, some corporate types are nervous about his blue-collar roots, his populist proclivities, and his emphasis on religious issues. So why has Santorum, the third-ranking member of the Senate Republican leadership, become the top recipient of campaign checks from the seven most generous economic sectors, including health-care companies, Wall Street, and commercial banks? The reason: Polls show Santorum trailing his 2006 Democratic challenger, Bob Casey, and he's calling in all his chits. Business clearly prefers a tax-cutting GOP populist to an old-school economic liberal. What's more, if the embattled incumbent survives Casey's challenge, business lobbyists know that Santorum could well run for President -- and nobody wants to get on his bad side by sitting out the Senate race.
Vice-President Dick Cheney has spent a lot of time in undisclosed locations, but he has a new, disclosed location where aircraft dare not go. The Federal Aviation Administration, at the request of the Secret Service, has banned flights within a mile of Cheney's new country home in St. Michaels, Md., on Chesapeake Bay -- even when he isn't there. That creates a headache for some corporate executives, who have griped for years that their private planes have to dodge more and more no-fly zones surrounding the Washington area. Add one more to the flight chart.