Two millionaires vying for governor in Florida are bickering over who’s had the more cushy life.
“You grew up with plenty of money, Charlie,” Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott said to Charlie Crist, the Democrat, a line he would repeat five times during a recent hour-long debate.
But it’s Scott who flies around in a private jet and is “worth about $100 or $200 million,” countered Crist, arguing that such wealth has made Scott “out of touch” with Florida.
Five years into an economic recovery that has sent stocks and corporate profits soaring while weekly wages stagnate, millionaire candidates are fending off attacks on their bank accounts and business records in races from Connecticut to Georgia to Kentucky.
“We shouldn’t be too surprised that politicians are coming under fire for their wealth,” said Nicholas Carnes, a public policy professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who studies the occupations and earnings of elected officials. “We’re still recovering from the effects of the recession. There are still a lot of people facing hard economic times.”
Wealth hasn’t been much of an impediment to U.S. electoral success in the past. Former Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush are among the millionaire office-holders from both parties.
In recent years, a strain of economic populism that also has a long history in U.S. politics has seen a revival in the wake of the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009.
In part that’s because it accelerated a trend of rising income inequality in the country: Average income for the top 5 percent of households grew 38 percent from 1989 to 2013, compared with an increase of less than 10 percent for all others, according to the Federal Reserve. The median usual pay for Americans employed full-time was $790 per week in the third quarter, about a dollar less per week than just before the start of the recession, Labor Department figures show.
Candidates seize on that theme because it resonates with middle-income voters, Carnes said.
Private jets, plush boardrooms and shuttered factories are the stuff of advertising campaigns in the U.S. Senate races in Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota and in contests for governor in Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
In Georgia’s Senate race, Democrat Michelle Nunn has spent months airing ads hitting Republican opponent and businessman David Perdue for “sending American jobs overseas.”
Perdue, a 64-year-old former chief executive of Dollar General Corp., is worth about $31.7 million, according to federal disclosures. The attacks -- which feature the line “Perdue, he’s not for you” -- have helped make Nunn, 47, competitive in a state President Barack Obama, a Democrat, lost by almost 8 percentage points in 2012, according to an average of recent public polls by RealClearPolitics.com
In a debate last month, Perdue said the outsourcing allegations were a distraction and that he had helped create “tens of thousands of jobs throughout my career.”
Republican Mitch McConnell is facing similar attacks in Kentucky, as the Senate minority leader tries to fend off a challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. In a debate last month -- and in ads calling her opponent “Rich McConnell” -- Grimes has highlighted the senator’s net worth of more than $30 million.
“He’s gotten rich while consistently voting to keep Kentucky poor,” Grimes said during the Oct. 13 debate, tying McConnell’s fortune to his stance against raising the minimum wage. McConnell, 72, is leading Grimes, 35, by 6.5 points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polling data.
McConnell said during the debate that his wealth had come from an inheritance, not from his three-decade Senate career.
Along with Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for a Michigan Senate seat, McConnell and Perdue are among the wealthiest U.S. Senate candidates in this year’s 12 most competitive contests, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The ranking is based on the midpoint of net worth listed on federal disclosure forms, which allow candidates to report their wealth in broad ranges.
Polls show Land -- worth about $32.8 million -- trailing in Michigan, while other wealthy Senate candidates in competitive races are running even, or just slightly ahead of their opponents.
Candidates in some governor’s races are also running class-focused campaigns against millionaire opponents.
In Illinois, incumbent Governor Pat Quinn is facing the wealthiest candidate of the cycle in Bruce Rauner, a venture capitalist who has earned more than $200 million since 2010, according to tax returns.
“My opponent has nine mansions and he got $60 million in one year,” Quinn, a 65-year-old Democrat said at an Oct. 19 rally in Chicago. Quinn’s campaign has run ads saying Rauner outsourced jobs, stashed money offshore and belongs to a wine club that costs $140,000 to join.
Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Rauner, called the ads “misleading and false,” and pointed to recent polls showing Quinn trailing in the race.
In a recent debate, Rauner said his wealth will allow him to “stand up to the special interests” and that “you don’t judge a person’s heart by the size of their wallet.”
Democratic Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy has aired a series of commercials featuring his Republican challenger’s’ 116-foot yacht. In Georgia’s governor’s race, Democratic state Senator Jason Carter began running ads last month highlighting Republican incumbent Nathan Deal’s $3.9 million net worth.
Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has donated to the campaigns of Malloy in Connecticut and Nunn in Georgia.
Republicans are also using the strategy against well-heeled Democrats.
Wisconsin Republicans have accused Mary Burke, a candidate for governor and a former executive at a bicycle manufacturer, of outsourcing jobs to China. Pennsylvania Republicans have faulted Tom Wolf, a businessman who has spent $10 million on a gubernatorial bid, for paying a lower tax rate than the average resident.
Ads branding Burke as “Millionaire Mary” and Wolf as “Millionaire Tom” have blanketed the airwaves in Pennsylvania and in Wisconsin, where polls predict a close race.
In Florida, Scott began highlighting Crist’s wealth after facing months of attacks over his own multimillion-dollar fortune. Scott, a former health-care executive who lists his net worth at $132.7 million, has criticized Crist as someone who had a pampered upbringing.
Crist, a 58-year-old lawyer and the son of a doctor, lists his net worth at about $1.2 million. Scott, 61, and Crist are deadlocked in pre-election polls.
Candidates often downplay their wealth as they attempt to connect with voters. Wolf has appeared in ads driving a 2006 Jeep Wrangler and Rauner has featured his 20-year-old camper van and $18 wristwatch in commercials.
Hearkening back to a hardscrabble upbringing or poor grandparents is one way candidates can deflect scrutiny of their finances, Carnes said.
Obama, who listed his midpoint net worth at $4.7 million during his 2008 campaign, told voters that he struggled to pay off student loans and started out as a low-paid community organizer.
“When voters hear that a candidate grew up in working-class family, even if the candidate is wealthy, they perceive the candidate as being a little more connected to ordinary citizens,” Carnes said.