Elections

Why Candidates With No Experience Are Winning Over Voters

The truck driver who won the Democratic bid for Mississippi governor -- without spending a cent -- is the latest in a string of nominees for statewide office who lack any political experience.
by | September 25, 2015
Robert Gray, the Democratic nominee for Mississippi governor, talking to reporters. (AP)

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

Everyone knows Democrats are struggling in the South. Sometimes, they can't even nominate serious candidates for office.

In August, Robert Gray, a truck driver by trade who spent zero dollars on the race, won the Democratic nomination for governor of Mississippi. Gray hadn't even bothered informing his mother, who lives with him, that he was running. He also didn't bother voting for himself.

Gray's situation may sound unusual, but something like it actually seems to occur just about every election cycle. There are plenty of nominations barely worth pursuing around the country in low-profile races against formidable incumbents. But in the South, neither the press nor voters pay much attention to many Democratic primary races, making the region particularly fertile ground for political unknowns to win statewide nominations.

"This is a symptom of a larger problem with Democrats in the South," said Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party.

In Texas, where Democrats haven't won a statewide race in more than 20 years, the 2014 nomination for agriculture commissioner went to Jim Hogan, a cattle farmer who, like Gray, spent no money on his own race but beat the party's candidate of choice. Hogan told me at the time that he believed he had a good name and voters did seem to prefer it to that of his lead opponent, who was listed on the ballot as Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III. Hogan also bested singer and perennial candidate Kinky Friedman.

For years, a man named Gene Kelly -- not the star of old movie musicals -- forced Texas Democrats into runoffs, despite not actively campaigning.

In a race that few care about, a familiar-sounding name might be enough to win. In Mississippi, Democrats say that Gray's position as the first name on the ballot had a lot to do with his victory. He was also the only man in a three-person field.

"The thread they all have in common is a weak Democratic party and underfunded statewide candidates," said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. "The result is [that]  a majority of the people voting in the Democratic primary don't know anything about the candidates other than what is presented on the ballot, and that is their names."

But unknown candidates haven't been vetted by party leaders or the media.

Alvin Greene, an unemployed military veteran, became an embarrassment after he won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in South Carolina back in 2010. The day after his victory, the press revealed that Greene was facing obscenity charges.

Alvin Greene (AP/Mary Ann Chastain)

Two years later, when Mark Clayton came out on top in the Tennessee Senate primary, the state Democratic Party disavowed his candidacy, saying he is "associated with a known hate group." Last year, Clayton tried to run for governor, but the party blocked him from filing. Clayton sued, unsuccessfully. It didn't help much. The party ended up nominating Charlie Brown, a retired construction worker who did no campaigning.

In the South, it's difficult for Democrats to recruit ambitious politicians to run, let alone offer enough support to stave off challengers. It costs money to stop a losing candidate -- money that donors and party officials may prefer to direct toward more winnable races, such as open seats where no incumbent is running.

Candidates who aren't going to make a serious effort clearly aren't going to help their parties. But they can hurt them, with their rhetoric potentially rubbing off on down-ballot candidates.

"You run the risk that they embarrass the party with their statements," Jones said.

In Mississippi, Gray isn't mounting any kind of serious challenge against GOP Gov. Phil Bryant. Democrats never had a realistic chance of winning, but they were at least hoping to have a candidate who could energize the party -- if only to give some kind of boost to their other candidates, including state Attorney General Jim Hood.

Hood is the last Democrat holding statewide office in the Deep South. With the party's bench wiped out across much of the region, more no-name candidates are bound to emerge.

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

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