Career politician. It is one of the campaign attacks most familiar to voters, and one that is flying fast and furious in the highest stakes races in Ohio. But the portrayals are not always clear, fair or accurate.
Candidates who use the term, or its cousin, “Washington insider,” seek to draw quick contrasts to their opponents. In a single snappy phrase, they hope to paint that person as entrenched, out-of-touch, pro-government in an era of government oppression – or all three.
The goal appears to be to stake out the “outsider” role, as Republican Donald Trump did in his successful 2016 presidential run.
Yet people disagree about what constitutes a career. Some say decades, others say days. And it is unclear when a candidate’s history in political office – some going back to local offices in their youth – turns from an asset into a liability.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor recently labeled rival gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine and his running mate, Secretary of State Jon Husted, “the career politician status quo establishment ticket.” That’s a mouthful, with an implication that the 51-year-old Taylor is an outsider.
The fact is that DeWine, 71, has spent 40 years in politically elected office. He started as a county prosecutor in 1976 and went on to become a state senator, congressman, Ohio lieutenant governor and U.S. senator. After a brief gap, he has been Ohio’s attorney general since 2011.
But Taylor’s time in politics is not short, either. At 51, she has served in statewide office for 11 years, and spent years in the state Legislature and on her local city council before that.
Taylor’s campaign spokesman, Michael Duchesne, said Taylor has “demonstrated her bona fides as a political outsider” even while in office, bucking her own party, being a government watchdog and holding politicians of all parties accountable.
DeWine campaign spokesman Ryan Stubenrauch said, “Ohio voters elect leaders based on a candidate’s vision, ideas and ability to solve their problems — not on buzzwords from political consultants. Our campaign is confident that voters will weigh those issues and choose Mike DeWine as their next governor.”
In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and Cleveland businessman Mike Gibbons are fighting over the “outsider” label the victor will no doubt use against Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown in the fall.
The 65-year-old Brown was elected Ohio’s youngest state representative in 1974, while he was still in college. He went on to serve eight years as Ohio’s secretary of state and seven terms in Congress. He has been in the Senate since 2007.
As a gubernatorial candidate last year, Renacci labeled Taylor and DeWine “Columbus insiders” and himself an outsider.
Making that case became harder when he moved into the Senate race, since Renacci has spent the past seven years serving in Washington as a congressman. Gibbons, a political novice, calls himself the “conservative outsider” in the race.
Gibbons spokesman Chris Schrimpf said “career politician and insider” rightly describes Renacci because it describes someone who is “more focused on staying in office or running for a higher office than they are about the voters.”
Brown’s campaign spokesman, Preston Maddock, said Renacci has labeled Brown a career politician to distract voters from “his years in Washington pushing a self-serving, anti-Ohio agenda.”
Renacci changed his pitch slightly as he touted recent endorsements from the Ohio Republican Party and Ohio’s Republican congressional delegation. In a release last month, he said Ohioans have an opportunity in him to elect “a strong new voice to the United States Senate who will deliver the fresh brand of effective leadership we so badly need to strengthen our state and our country.”
His campaign did not respond to a request for comment Monday.