If Rich CEOs Are Outsiders, McCain Is One Too: Margaret Carlson

As the noted political pundit John Lennon put it, “Your inside is out and your outside is in.”

As this primary season ends, there’s still no telling whether it’s the year of the insider or the outsider, or, for that matter, which candidates fall into which category.

Some insiders have lost big, especially Senators Bob Bennett in Utah and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.

At the same time, some insiders have won big. In Missouri, onetime House Republican Whip Roy Blunt won his party’s nomination for Senate, turning back a challenge from Tea Party activist and quail farmer Chuck Purgason. In Kansas, Representative Jerry Moran captured the Republican nomination for Senate over Representative Todd Tiahrt, who enjoyed the support of Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity.

Corporate titans who made millions of dollars inside the system have had some success painting themselves as outsiders -- at least among Republican primary voters.

Thanks to the magic of advertising, California’s Meg Whitman (the former EBay Inc. chief executive officer, running for governor) and Carly Fiorina (former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO, running for Senate), Michigan’s Rick “One Tough Nerd” Snyder (former Gateway Inc. chairman, running for governor) and Connecticut’s Linda McMahon (former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, running for Senate) have morphed into populist upstarts.

Fraud Settlement

Ditto for Florida’s Rick Scott, founder of Columbia/HCA HealthCare Corp., who spent almost $40 million to win the Republican nomination for governor, upsetting state Attorney General Bill McCollum. One of the less populist items on Scott’s resume is the $1.5 billion in fraud-settlement payments made by his companies.

The rich-outsider routine didn’t work as well for a Democrat, billionaire real-estate investor Jeff Greene, who lost the Florida Senate primary to Representative Kendrick Meek. Many in the Democratic establishment were quietly hoping that a Greene victory would free them to support Charlie Crist, the Republican governor turned independent Senate candidate, against Tea Party hero and Republican nominee Marco Rubio.

So does Greene’s loss offer insight into insiders and outsiders this year? Probably not. It might simply mean that rich party boys can’t win: Greene is famous for what a former employee described as non-stop happy hour on his yacht featuring “sex, drugs and techno music.”

Quayle’s Son

But wait! Another candidate who is no stranger to parties, one with slim credentials and deep establishment roots, won.

In a race for an open Arizona House seat, Ben Quayle, son of poor speller and former Vice President Dan Quayle, emerged atop a 10-person Republican primary field, helped by his name even as he was hobbled by being exposed as a former contributor to DirtyScottsdale.com, a website for hard-core revelers in the tony Phoenix suburb. Short of a family of his own, Quayle made up one for a campaign mailing, passing off two young nieces as daughters.

What makes politics so fascinating is it remains a story not just of seismic trends but of single individuals.

John McCain underwent a massive makeover to beat back his first serious primary challenge in years, from former Representative J.D. Hayworth. McCain jettisoned even the “maverick” label he wore proudly for so long, arguing, comically, that he never really considered himself one.

Rough Rider

He stripped the bark off his opponent, going negative early and often, turning Hayworth into the incumbent by linking him, correctly, to lobbyist-felon Jack Abramoff. While Hayworth, a radio broadcaster, talked the smooth talk of the politician, the newly anti-establishment McCain ditched the Teddy Roosevelt reformer politics but kept the Rough Rider costume, doing everything to look tough but pack heat and charge up Camelback Mountain.

McCain’s triumph added to Palin’s win column. She’s batting .667 in her endorsements of both Tea Party and establishment candidates.

She might chalk up another win in her home state of Alaska, where her protege, Joe Miller, holds a surprising lead over incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski. A “miracle on ice,” Palin labeled it via Twitter. The outcome won’t be final until the absentee ballots are tallied.

On the extensive Palin family-feud list, the Murkowskis rank second only to Levi Johnston’s clan. Lisa got her Senate seat when her father, Frank, left it to become governor and then appointed her to it. Dear Old Dad’s career was cut short by Palin, who challenged him in a primary in 2006, setting the stage for her swift and improbable ascent to the vice presidential nomination in 2008.

‘Own Self-Interest’

On Tuesday, Murkowski said of Palin, “I think she’s out for her own self-interest. I don’t think she’s out for Alaska’s interest.”

Outsider versus insider, Tea Party versus establishment, party boy versus family guy, rich versus less-rich, new McCain versus maverick McCain, corporate versus government, Murkowski versus Palin. For those tired of elections that turn simply on party labels, this might be your year.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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