GOP Candidates Withstand Dems' Efforts to Demonize

Republican candidates, including Wall Streeters, free traders and Big Business profiteers, have opened up polling leads in some of the choicest midterm contests, despite Democrats' efforts to disqualify them in the present based on their pasts

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From left: Tom Williams / Roll Call / Getty Images; David Kohl / AP; Matt Sullivan / Reuters

From left: Pat Toomey, Rob Portman and John Kasich

Republicans remain poised to have a heckuva Election Day. But their curious choices in a few important contests could have undermined the GOP's overarching anti–Big Government message. Some standouts in the group of Republican nominees: a former Lehman Brothers executive; the guy who was in charge of budgets and trade agreements for George W. Bush; another financial honcho who has long been one of the nation's leading proponents of privatizing Social Security; two corporate CEOs with checkered records; and a onetime health care CEO with an even more checkered record.

In 2010, politician might be a dirty word, but you wouldn't expect fat cats, Wall Streeters, free traders, Bushies and Big Business profiteers to fare much better than Democratic pols when proffered to an angry electorate.

But, to the surprise of some analysts, and to the great disappointment of the White House and its allies, the Republican candidates with those career badges are not only in the hunt to win some of the choicest midterm contests, but in many cases have opened up significant polling leads, despite buckets of money spent by Democrats over many months to stop them.

In Ohio, the ex–Lehman Brothers executive (and former long-term Republican Congressman) John Kasich has opened up a comfortable lead over the incumbent Democratic governor Ted Strickland. Also in the Buckeye State, Rob Portman, who headed both the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in the last Bush Administration, is considered by even most Democratic strategists to be a lock to win an open Senate seat and beat the state's lieutenant governor Lee Fisher. Ohio voters have been told over and over again, on radio and television, flyers and blast e-mails, about how rich Kasich got in the era of Wall Street plunder, and how Portman contributed to George W. Bush's record of deficits and the blight of American jobs shipped overseas. But those messages have bounced off like popgun caps rather than pierced like silver bullets.

Ditto for the Senate race in Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey, the Republican nominee, is now heavily favored to win the seat currently held by newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter over the party's nominee, Congressman Joe Sestak. Toomey made a fortune as a Wall Street derivatives trader and peddled personal savings accounts as a cure for Social Security's troubled balance sheet as the head of the conservative group the Club for Growth. Sestak and his allies have pounded away at those themes for months — only to watch the Democratic Congressman fall further and further behind in the polls.

In three other megaraces, former business leaders are in a position to win, despite efforts to disqualify them in the present based on their pasts. The former eBay CEO Meg Whitman remains in a virtual tie against Jerry Brown to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of California. Carly Fiorina, who left the top job at Hewlett-Packard under a corporate cloud, has got a decent chance to unseat incumbent Golden State Senator Barbara Boxer. And in Florida, controversial former health care executive Rick Scott, who ran Columbia/HCA when the hospital company was enmeshed in a fraud and kickback scandal, has jumped ahead of Alex Sink, the Democrats' nominee for the open governor's slot. All three Republicans made oodles of money in their private-sector jobs, and in the case of Whitman and Scott, have spent many millions of their own to propel their candidacies. Again, Democrats have relentlessly pointed out these potential biographical blots and have scored no knockout punches for their efforts.

In some of these cases, to be sure, the Democratic candidates are career politicians in an anti-career-politician environment. But Sestak was an admiral in the Navy and Sink was a banker, and both entered elective office relatively recently. No matter. In 2010, having a D after your name is a scarlet letter that apparently carries a more negative wallop than the heavy professional baggage lugged by Kasich, Portman, Toomey, Whitman, Fiorina and Scott.

Not all those Republicans will necessarily win in November — but it wouldn't be safe to wager against any of them at this point. Democrats bet that they could make voters forget about the short, unpopular tale of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid trinity by talking about the long, dense histories of their Republican opponents. So far, that bet has not paid off.

One Nation, Halperin's politics column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.