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What Kinds of Candidates Will Fit With 2006?

No two election cycles are exactly alike. The key for political strategists is to figure out what kinds of candidates will fit the cycle at hand. And this cycle could be particularly tricky.

For most election cycles, the ideal candidate for the Senate is a statewide elected official who has demonstrated an ability to raise lots of money and who begins with name identification and political experience. [IMGCAP(1)]

The ideal House candidate is often a state legislator or a county commissioner — elected officials who have proved their political mettle and ability to win votes. Since they have passed at least one test, they are more likely to withstand the media attention and attacks that come with a House contest.

But current polling data strongly suggest that voters are unhappy with the direction of the country and with the performance of the nation’s top political leaders. Talk of political junkets, now limited to a few Members of Congress, could add to the public’s distaste for politicians.

In many states, state legislators don’t have a much better reputation. Veteran legislators across the country have had to deal with tough economic decisions that include raising taxes, cutting popular programs or both. County and local officials have faced the same types of problems recently.

With potentially nasty fights on judges still ahead and more partisan finger-pointing likely, voters might tire further of politics as usual — and of politicians as usual. That could well open up opportunities for “non-politicians” next year.

Anyone who was around in the early to mid-1990s surely remembers the public mood and the flock of “outsider” candidates who promised to go to Capitol Hill and shake up things.

In 1992, 1994 and 1996, officials with the Republican and Democratic campaign committees made every effort to recruit businesspeople and community activists who could run as vehicles for change and who couldn’t be painted as political professionals.

Lack of political experience wasn’t merely acceptable during those cycles, it was a badge of honor — a credential. Candidates without a voting record and without responsibility for the status quo could more easily attack officeholders and the political establishment.

Democrats also took advantage of the national mood by nominating — and electing — an unusually large number of women for the Senate in 1992. In Washington, Patty Murray (D) campaigned as a mom in tennis shoes, while in Illinois, African-American Carol Moseley Braun (D) was the ultimate nontraditional politician. California elected two Democratic women as Senators that year.

Even sitting officeholders elected to the Senate that cycle often boasted a nontraditional style. American Indian Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, then a Democrat, didn’t look like his colleagues, and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin was a quirky reformer who ran a series of self-deprecating television ads.

Four years later, in the wake of widespread incumbent defeats in 1994 and the GOP’s successful “change” message that helped it take over the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades, both parties again looked for nontraditional politicians. Republicans found investment banker Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and businessman Guy Millner (Ga.), neophyte lawyer Al Salvi (Ill.) and another woman in Maine, Susan Collins. And Democrats came up with first-time hopeful Tom Strickland (Colo.), four supposedly credible women, businessman Tom Bruggere in Oregon and Max Cleland, a war hero who had lost three limbs, in Georgia. Not all of them won, but some did.

This cycle, Democrats, who as the minority party inevitably gravitate toward the “change message,” are searching for political outsiders who can run on themes of reform, moderation and ethics.

One early Democratic candidate with an interesting profile for ’06 is Elwyn Tinklenberg, a retired minister and Minnesota transportation official in the administration of former Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura. While Tinklenberg has held local office, he sounds more like a minister than a politician.

Yet despite similarities between 2006 and the ’92, ’94 and ’96 cycles, there is one huge difference: 9/11.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, voters were sometimes willing to take a flyer on a challenger they really didn’t know, simply because they wanted to send a message of change or express their dissatisfaction with an incumbent. But after the terrorist attacks, it’s uncertain whether those same voters will put their future in the hands of someone who hasn’t demonstrated considerable management skills or who can’t be trusted to keep them safe.

In this environment, security, safety, maturity, law enforcement experience and proven good judgment become even more valued than ever to voters.

This cycle, Democratic insiders are already talking enthusiastically about two candidates with law enforcement backgrounds, which could appeal to security-conscious voters: Sheriff Brad Ellsworth in Indiana’s 8th district and retired FBI agent Coleen Rowley in Minnesota’s 2nd district.

But we are still in the summer of 2005, and events that occur in the next 16 months could well change what kinds of qualities voters look for when they go to the polls. So the campaign committees will need some luck in finding the right candidates in the right states and districts.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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