Donald Trump’s election as president provides the best example of an outsider who outpolled experienced politicians, confounded observers and won office. David Perdue scored a similar success when he defeated three members of Congress, including Jack Kingston who chaired an Appropriations subcommittee, and a former secretary of state to win the GOP Senate nomination. In tapping Kelly Loeffler to succeed Johnny Isakson, Governor Brian Kemp is hoping for another success by a political novice come November.
The June 9 primaries provide additional examples of outsiders sprinting past insiders to grab nominations or at least to make it into a runoff. Examples appear in both parties. Republicans had contested primaries to pick candidates for three open congressional seats. In perhaps the most striking example, physician Rich McCormick, riding a wave of TV ads paid for by the Club for Growth, blew away nine-term state Senator Renee Unterman by a three-to-one margin in the 7th District.
In the mountain district, District 9, a respected state senator and a representative finished third and fifth. Advancing to the runoff are Matt Gurtler and Andrew Clyde. Gurtler has done two terms in the state House, but nonetheless should be considered an outsider as he has made a career of breaking with his party’s leadership often being a lonely “No” vote even on what are generally considered non-controversial issues. Gun store owner Clyde, who successfully challenged IRS’ civil asset forfeiture practice, has not held office.
Results in the GOP primary in the 14th District show a result much like the other two districts. The large primary field included a former state school superintendent, a former state representative and a current state rep. None of these came close to making the runoff. Neither of the candidates who will face off in August has held office. The primary leader, with 40% of the vote, Marjorie Taylor Greene, is so far outside the mainstream that at least four members of Georgia’s GOP congressional delegation and the entire U.S. House Republican leadership has rebuked her for racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments recorded on social media. Facebook took down one of her ads in which she wields an AR-15. Her opponent, John Cowan is a physician.
On the Democratic side, Jon Ossoff easily defeated former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson for the nomination to confront Sen. Perdue. Ossoff benefited from widespread name recognition in the Atlanta media market achieved during his $30 million losing bid in the 2017 special election in the 6th District. In the 7th Congressional District, Carolyn Bourdeaux lapped a field that included a state senator, a representative and a former county commissioner. Ossoff and Bourdeaux, while never having held office, were more experienced than the successful GOP candidates (excluding Gurtler) since the two Democrats had run for office. Bourdeaux came within 434 votes of winning the 7th District in 2018.
Those who favor electing outsiders believe they bring new perspectives and perhaps new ways of performing their tasks to an institution. Outsiders may break the mold which is desirable to those who judge government as unresponsive and going down the wrong track. Outsiders may give voice to previously ignored interests in the constituency and that can lead to changes in an institution’s agenda or at least broaden the options considered when fashioning public policy.
Critics point out that outsiders may confront a steep learning curve before becoming effective. Experience in the state legislature will have exposed the new member of Congress to some of the unwritten rules that successful members internalize. Work as a state legislator provides an opportunity to master a subject, like health or education policy, that can help a junior member gain recognition and acceptance. Legislative tenure may knock off some of the rough edges of ideology and temper legislators to accept the attainable rather than hold out for the perfect.
Regardless of the pros and cons of outsider versus insider, the successes registered by outsiders in Georgia’s primary indicate a widespread disregard for, if not hostility toward, political experience. Suspicions about experience could help Kelly Loeffler as she competes with the politically-seasoned Rep. Doug Collins for GOP support in November’s Senate jungle primary. Bias against insiders might also help Democrats challenging Republican incumbents in more than 20 state legislative districts that appear to be competitive this year.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is co-author of Georgia Politics in a State of Change now in its third edition.