In years like 2010, you get candidates like Dale Peterson. The 64-year-old retired businessman has never run for public office, but he's one of three GOP candidates in the June 1 primary for Alabama agriculture commissioner. His ad "We are Better Than That!" has gone viral, with more than 470,000 views on YouTube. Bloggers are calling it the best campaign commercial of the year (so far!). He's been on Glenn Beck's radio show. The ad aired on Hardball with Chris Matthews. There is even a Dale Peterson For President Facebook group. I reached Peterson by phone as he drove to a TV interview at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Peterson says his campaign is a grassroots effort--"And you're talking to half of it." The former Marine, police officer, and small businessman got into politics this year because, like a lot of people, he's fed up. "This is the year that this state and my country needs me," he says. "We're in a mess. We're limited in the time we have to fix this, and if we don't start turning something around, a lot of people will say, 'Well, it's too late.' More than anything else, this state's been real good for me, and it's payback time."
The ad was the brainchild of Ladd Ehlinger Jr., a libertarian filmmaker who hosts a radio show in Huntsville. Peterson appeared on the show a few times. One day Ehlinger offered to make an ad for his campaign. Ehlinger wrote, directed, produced, and edited the video. When it was done, he showed it to Peterson and asked, What do you think? "I said, 'How'd I know, I've never done one before!'"
When you go to Ehlinger's website, you may wonder what he and Peterson have in common. Ehlinger seems to be enthused about the, um, tangible aspects of liberty, whereas Peterson is primarily concerned with food safety, cap and trade, and illegal immigration. What the two share, however, is antigovernment sentiment. They dislike the condition of the country. They blame the elites and elite institutions, like government, for the situation. And for the emerging center-right coalition, that is enough.
This is the same dynamic that produced the 2010 Utah Republican convention. It's contributing to today's elections in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Disgust with politicians is paramount. I asked Peterson which political figures he looked up to, and the only name he came up with was Reagan's. "He was the ultimate," he says. "I don't know if we'll have anyone to live up to his standards. One day we might. He got the people behind him, and he understood, that's what it's about."
One might be tempted to think that a GOP primary for Alabama agriculture commissioner doesn't say a lot about the direction of the country. But I'm not so sure. One of the reasons Peterson's ad hit a chord was its over-the-top, Howard-Beale-like anti-establishment message. Peterson likes the Tea Party and Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty. His ad is rife with symbols that appeal to these groups: the Constitution, a rifle, the cowboy who represents the self-made man. (Peterson, who judges livestock contests, is nicknamed "The Cowboy.") He's a straight-talker who isn't afraid to make distinctions. There will be a lot of Dale Petersons in the 112th Congress.
As John Judis notes (subscriber only), the Tea Party is not going away because it connects to some deeply held American ideals. And Dale Peterson may not be going away either. Rick Perry was once agriculture commissioner, remember.