The two men had spoken before crowds countless times before. But as David Perdue and then Eugene Yu turned toward hundreds of GOP activists chomping on barbecue in a steamy airplane hangar, they were making a pitch for something new: votes.
It was one of the first campaign appearances for the two Republican Senate candidates who can most rely on their personal bank accounts to boost their bids to succeed Saxby Chambliss next year. And a third executive with the financial wherewithal to shake up the race, Kelly Loeffler, could soon announce a run.
The political unknowns argue that their business prowess and outsider take on Washington make them particularly strong candidates. But Georgia’s political landscape is dotted with the wreckage of millionaires who have unsuccessfully run for higher office.
Not since 1980 has a candidate with no prior public office been elected to a Senate seat in Georgia. Millionaire business titans have lost bids for Senate and governor despite formidable financial muscle. And there’s an underlying fear that vast wealth can make a candidate seem inaccessible to regular voters.
Few know the hurdles ahead as well as Guy Millner, a three-time Republican candidate for statewide office who didn’t win. Millner, who sunk millions into his campaigns in the 1990s, said the candidates should proudly defend their willingness to self-fund their campaigns even if it becomes a campaign controversy.
“I feel like if I’m not willing to invest in myself, why should I ask others? Some people may say he or she’s got enough money, why do they need my help?” he said. “I didn’t find that attitude. If they thought you had a winning chance, they were right there with you.”
Another challenge is earning coverage and attention from skeptical reporters. Cliff Oxford, who ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2004, said the media often find it hard to accept someone willing to transition from private business to public office.
“But at the same time, if someone had been elected to the Powder Springs City Council, then that kind of validates them,” he said. “The media kind of say, ‘Why would you do this to yourself rather than retire to the Bahamas?’ And I don’t think we in the private sector always have the best answer to that.”
Many political wannabes probably would trade those setbacks for the ability to snap open their wallet to fund a new round of TV ads or hire bigwig consultants. But Adam Stone, a Georgia Perimeter College political scientist, said wealthy candidates have to walk a fine line between buying attention and earning admiration.
“In order to say you’re an outsider and really make it work, it will be a lot of money but it will also take a lot of strategy here,” said Stone. “It will be interesting.”
“Interesting” is an understatement. Yu and Perdue are among seven Republicans vying for the open seat in a race that includes four established politicians: Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston and former Secretary of State Karen Handel.
The Democratic field is a little more settled, with high-profile Democrats in Washington and Georgia backing nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. She faces competition from several candidates, including former state Sen. Steen Miles and psychiatrist Branko “Dr. Rad” Radulovacki.
With a background as a Fortune 500 executive and a promise to be a significant “investor” in his campaign, Perdue greeted his first crowds with a warning that the U.S. could go the same way as the Soviet Union if voters “keep putting the same people in charge.” He hasn’t yet disclosed his financial records, but regulatory reports show he’s earned millions in salary and bonuses from Dollar General and Reebok, among other companies.
Although he is a newcomer, he is drawing heavily on the support and network of his first cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue. One of the members of that web is Jim Lientz, who was Gov. Perdue’s chief operating officer. He admires David Perdue’s “data driven” approach to policy, but says he must remain disciplined in what he says.
“Like all people in a race this high-profile, he’s learning,” Lientz said. “He’s having to learn that every single word that he says can and will be used against him by somebody. He’s got to be very cautious in his wording and in the issues that he talks about.”
Yu had a different pitch to the crowd in Rome. A Korean-born businessman from Augusta who speaks with an accent, Yu promised to be a “one of a kind” senator who embodies the American Dream. Financial records show he owns millions of dollars worth of stock and real estate assets.
“I may not know all the fancy words,” said Yu. “But if we bring common sense in the government, our society will be much better.”
He earned near rapturous applause for his 5-minute stump speech, which featured a pithy campaign line: “Vote for Yu for you.” But whether crowds view him as more than a novelty may not be clear until the May 20 primary. Layla Shipman, a GOP activist from Floyd County who organized the event, said she was among the many who were impressed by his enthusiasm.
“I think people will hear him out,” she said. “I’ve talked to folks who genuinely support him. His words resonated with the crowd.”
Yu and Perdue could soon be joined by a third millionaire executive who could scramble the race even more.
Loeffler, a 42-year-old Atlanta businesswoman, is expected to decide within weeks whether to run. The InterContinental Exchange executive has been delayed by her company’s recent purchase of the New York Stock Exchange.
Loeffler, who gave $750,000 to the Super PAC backing Mitt Romney last year, is well known in Georgia’s Republican donor circles. She’s the co-owner of the local WNBA franchise, the Atlanta Dream, and allies say she has the support of some influential Republicans who remain dissatisfied with the current field.
Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran GOP consultant who has not picked a candidate in the Senate race, did not pledge his support to Loeffler if she jumps in but said she would be a formidable candidate.
“There’s a lot unknown about her and I think … if she does choose to get in the race, there’s a lot of attractive things about her,” he said.
Millner has a final warning for the executives, present and future, considering a run. He took heat during his three campaigns for off-the-cuff asides that didn’t exactly resonate with his audience. Once, he kiddingly asked a group of rural voters,“Are y’all farmers or do you work for a living?”and it dogged him for months.
His advice to the executives in the running: “Hold back your sense of humor. Jokes don’t go over.”