Cover Story
Stephen Fincher: Aaron Hardin/The Jackson Sun/AP

Rookie season

Campaign 2010 | A surprising number of doctors and businessmen are setting aside their stethoscopes and spreadsheets to run for Congress-and they're running well

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

On Stephen Fincher's 2,500-acre farm in Frog Jump, Tenn., it's time to harvest the cotton and soybeans. The corn is still coming in. But after 18 harvests, which follow seven generations that his family has farmed the land, Fincher will have to miss most of this one while he campaigns for Congress.

"I love farming, I love Frog Jump, but I love my children more," Fincher said, explaining why he would ever want to leave his fields for Washington. He has three children, ages 14 down to 7. Since he operates his own family business, he is fed up with the federal government's ever-expanding debt and regulation of the private sector. Fincher is running as a Republican for the seat held by retiring Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., and he already handily defeated two much wealthier candidates in the GOP primary in August-the most expensive House primary in the country. His conservative Democratic opponent, state Sen. Roy Herron, also has more cash than Fincher, but the race is a toss-up, according to Cook Political Report.

WORLD kicks off its Election 2010 coverage by examining the stunning number of Republican candidates running for the House or Senate this year who, like Fincher, have no political background and are either small business owners or medical professionals: 55 in total. Eighteen medical professionals, concerned with the passage of the healthcare bill, are running along with 37 small business owners, concerned about the state of the economy and the nation's debt. WORLD reporter Edward Lee Pitts discovered such grassroots anxiety on those two issues in meeting voters on his trip across the country (see "Swinging back"). That anxiety puts incumbent conservative Democrats in jeopardy, too (see "Dying Dogs").

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Novices run for office in every election season, but it's unusual to have so many with a good chance of winning. And all of those with a good chance of winning this year share at least one trait: They're Republicans. Compared to the Democrats' 40-or-so toss-up seats, only three races for Republican-held House seats are considered toss-ups, and the Democrats running for those all have political backgrounds. While a few conservative Democrats have criticized healthcare reform or the Congress-generated deficit, they are incumbents.

The businesspeople running this year aren't bored executives looking for the next ladder to climb. There's a cherry farmer, the head of a music teaching company, the owner of a family swimming pool business, a funeral home owner. They have seen the recession damage their businesses, and they don't understand how the federal government can add new regulatory burdens while flouting basic budgeting itself. "We're missing common sense, business sense," Fincher told me. "You don't spend more than you make. It's not that complicated."

They say Congress has created a terrible environment for companies. "We don't know what's coming at us. We're hunkered down," said Scott Rigell, a car dealership owner who is running for Virginia's 2nd District, where Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye is the incumbent. "There's one word that everything revolves around: uncertainty." Rigell fought off the recession at his dealerships. (The "cash for clunkers" auto program helped last summer, but only for a while.) Business started to go bad in 2007 heading into 2008. "I thought, everything we worked for-in 12 months, we'll be done."

He quit drawing a salary and tried to bury unease by investing half a million dollars in advertising, buying new furniture, painting the dealership buildings, and doubling the business' 401k contributions. He said he didn't lay off anyone but didn't replace employees who left either. "I was just trying to do my own little part, to push back against the recession," he said. "A lot of this is psychological." Now, the business is "tenuous" and struggling to break even, he said. Since he is on the campaign trail around the clock these days, his business partner James Church is handling the dealerships, and they confer for about half an hour every week over the phone.

The physician-candidates make the most of their apolitical backgrounds. They splash photos on their campaign websites of themselves in scrubs, with stethoscopes and face masks askew like they just finished saving a life, an implicit reassurance that they know what voters need. Docs4PatientCare, a group of physicians, has spread a letter to thousands of doctors to post in their waiting rooms, detailing what the implications of healthcare reform could be and calling for voters to oust Democrats who supported the bill. "America's doctors have millions of personal interactions each week with patients," wrote the group's president, Hal Scherz, in a Wall Street Journal editorial. "We have political power."

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