If you have seen Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you can recall the classic story of Jefferson Smith, a naïve Boy Scouts troop leader played by James Stewart. Party bosses choose Mr. Smith to replace a deceased U.S. senator because they believe they can control his vote in Washington, D.C. Throughout the movie, the same party bosses find Mr. Smith a less and less willing puppet, as he constantly defies their wishes and even introduces his own controversial bill against their will. The movie ends with Mr. Smith’s classic filibuster on the senate floor, widely considered one of the most eloquent movie finales of all time.
After watching the movie, political aficionados like myself are left wondering whether or not a Mr. Smith could be elected today. Is there any way that an inexperienced candidate with no political ties, like Jefferson Smith, could win higher office in the United States? While possible, honest observers of the political scene must conclude that it is not likely.
Consider the U.S. senate race in Georgia between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn. Both candidates paint themselves as political “outsiders,” but it is obvious this is not the case. Michelle Nunn is largely riding the coattails of her powerful father (when she is not riding the coattails of an unwilling George H.W. Bush), and David Perdue is the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. Both candidates come from families with deep pockets and strong political ties.
Name recognition, family history, and political experience go a long way in elections. These characteristics also resonate with voters — just ask Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu), Mark Pryor of Arkansas (son of former Gov. David Pryor), and Jason Carter of Georgia (grandson of former President Jimmy Carter). All three candidates have a family history with voters in their states, a fact that explains their nomination for office more than any redeeming aspect of their personalities.
All of these patterns, combined with incumbency advantage, make it very difficult for first-time candidates with no political ties, experience, or support to win higher office in the United States.
Despite these hurdles, at least one Mr. Smith will be going to Washington after today’s elections. Earlier this year, Virginia’s Dave Brat, a political outsider and college professor, defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a shocking primary election. Brat defeated Cantor despite being outraised financially $200,000-to-$5 million, despite a yawning name ID gap, and despite having no family ties or institutional support — even from the Tea Party groups that later claimed credit for his victory. Instead, Brat used a simple campaign strategy — grassroots organization and desperation — to win. (Voters’ exasperation with Cantor, who campaigned almost exclusively from Washington, D.C., surely helped.) Brat’s example shows that it is still possible for Mr. Smith to go to Washington. Nevertheless, his upset may be the exception that proves the rule.
Happy election day.
—Russell Dye is a senior studying political science and horticulture
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