Will 2016 turn out to be the year of the businessman or will it be remembered as a moment when executives tried unsuccessfully to make the jump to major office? Developer Donald Trump, a part-time Palm Beach resident, may have beaten out a field of long-time elected officials to grab the Republican nomination for president, but he still faces a veteran candidate in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, in November. And other major contests impacting the Gulf Coast tell stories of CEOs hopeful to conquer the political landscape but ultimately finding disappointment.  

After a promising early showing as a US Senate candidate, Manatee County homebuilder Carlos Beruff’s electoral hopes vanished after the surprise re-entry of incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio into the contest. Meanwhile, a state Senate contest saw Potomac Financial CEO Rick Levine tally the lowest vote total in the Republican primary, ultimately coming in behind four experienced candidates. Yet, there are businessman-to-politician success stories. Joe Gruters this year managed to open his own accounting firm and win the Republican primary for a state House seat. Of course, Gruters had years of experience working in local GOP politics. Ultimately, success at the ballot box and in the business world can be equally daunting, and achievement in one field guarantees nothing in the other.

So what sets winning businesspeople apart from the also-rans? What appetite exists among the electorate for candidates with private-sector résumés? Ultimately, a lack of political network, low name recognition and simple lack of knowledge of campaign mechanics doom many an inexperienced candidate, whatever other credentials they bring to a race. But even unsuccessful candidates hope to highlight a hunger for public officials who cut their teeth in the business world.

The Trump Phenomenon

Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, endured tremendous criticism four years ago when he named Trump as Statesman of the Year. Trump’s crusade to question President Obama’s birth certificate made the Manhattan developer and The Apprentice host persona non grata with the Republican National Committee, who did not invite Trump to the party convention in Tampa that year, but Gruters held the event honoring Trump down the road in Sarasota, providing a sort of unofficial kick-off to the convention with Trump as a headliner. This year, his long relationship with Trump led to Gruters getting tapped as co-chair for Trump’s Florida campaign operations. Now the Trump operation’s Florida headquarters are located on State Street, around the corner from Gruters’ CPA accounting office, and Gruters feels confident Florida will back the businessman. “We will win Sarasota, we will win Florida,” Gruters predicts.

Whether the Trump cult of personality can carry a businessman who has never run for office before into the White House remains to be seen, but Trump already won the Florida Republican primary with 45.7 percent of the vote. Second place finisher Marco Rubio, a sitting US Senator representing Florida, pulled in just 27 percent. While that sets a high-profile backdrop for business candidates, Trump’s victory was hardly the first time a businessman has won favor with Sunshine State voters. Rick Scott stunned party leaders in 2010 when he ran for governor and beat Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, and further surprised when he beat state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in the general election. In 2014, he won re-election against former governor Charlie Crist.

US Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, found success running car dealerships before being elected to his current office in 2006. That victory came after years of work with chambers of commerce in Florida. And elsewhere in Florida, officials like US Reps. Curt Clawson, R-Fort Myers, and Ted Yoho, R-Ocala, beat out experienced candidates who served in the state House and other government agencies to win a seat in Congress. Just in August, Naples Republican and construction titan Francis Rooney did the same in a Republican primary. But most members of Florida’s Congressional delegation rose through the ranks at county commissions or the state legislature before winning their current seats. Rubio served as Speaker of the House before he was elected to the Senate and Florida’s other US senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, was elected as Florida’s insurance commissioner before winning his current office. And the Democrat nominated to fight Rubio, US Rep. Patrick Murphy, this November has served in Congress four years. Most candidates for high office still hold lower office first.

More Scott Than Trump

A day after Donald Trump gave a speech accepting the party nomination at the Republican National Convention, Carlos Beruff stands before a group of potential supporters in Charlotte County. Speaking under star-spangled decorations in a gathering room at Luigi’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant, he touts his business credentials as founder of Medallion Homes. With a history in construction and a platform that tilts to the right, Beruff often gets asked about whether he’s a candidate in the mold of Donald Trump. While he offers the Republican nominee a full-throated endorsement, he doesn’t consider himself a carbon copy of the candidate. “I’m really more like Rick Scott,” he says to applause.The crowd at Luigi’s responds with deeply supportive applause, and the people here clearly hunger for an outsider candidate. Linda McCreevy, a local activist who in 2010 acted as Charlotte County co-chair for Rubio’s Senate campaign, hasn’t seen Rubio in this rural county for years. “I believe Carlos would represent us,” she says.

But this room is a small one. While Rubio fills airplane hangars when he campaigns in Sarasota, Beruff enjoys a standing-room crowd in the back of a pizzeria. This wasn’t the plan. And just a couple months ago, it looked like the Beruff campaign would unfold very differently. A Mason-Dixon poll taken between May 31 and June 2, when Rubio maintained he would not seek re-election, showed Beruff with a small but very real edge in the Republican primary. He had the support of 17 percent of Republicans polled, compared to US Rep. David Jolly’s 13 percent, US Rep. Ron DeSantis’ 10 percent and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lope-Cantera’s 9 percent. With an aggressive advertising campaign that heavily critiqued the Obama administration, he seemed on course to win the nomination.

But then Rubio got in the race and all those other Republicans got out. Only Beruff stuck around, critiquing the incumbent as a career politician. “The Marco Rubios of the world are bogged down by the bureaucrats who spin a web around them and can’t figure anything out,” he says. Like Trump, Beruff says he comes with no obligations to anyone in government or special interest politics, and like Scott, he boasts being a self-made man who came from nothing and now just wants to leave a better future for his kids.

But Rubio’s entrance evaporated Beruff’s hopes, at least this year. In the August Republican primary, Rubio trounced him with 72 percent of the vote to Beruff’s 18.5 percent. The advantages of incumbency, including ties to those political leaders and special interests, ultimately proved insurmountable to a candidate without the ubiquitous name recognition of Donald Trump. And depending on what business background a candidate has, there can be other factors holding a candidacy back.

Private Sector Problems

Rick Levine saw an opportunity this year when state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, left the legislature for a Sarasota County Commission post. A crowded field of ambitious politicians with similar resumes ran to succeed Detert, and Levine hoped he could be the voice of common sense and win the outside vote.

“The people who vote are restless,” Levine says. “They want people who know how to solve problems.” Levine remains confident a major section of voters prefer candidates with experience in the competitive free market rather than in the halls of government.

But he ultimately felt enormous restrictions on his candidacy stemming from his own occupation. The CEO of Potomac Financial, Levine spent his entire career in finance, and while that gives him a strong understanding of the regulatory environment, he can’t solicit those doing business with Potomac. He can’t accept donations of more than $250 from clients, even if they give money affirmatively. Meanwhile, Levine’s opponents can take in $1,000 donations from their own friends and supporters. As many of Levine’s professional colleagues also work in finance, they each face restrictions regulations intended to prevent unfair coercion of elected officials.

In August, Levine lost the battle for the Republican nomination for state Senate, winning just 1,524 votes. Republican nominee Greg Steube, a six-year state representative, pulled in 15,382 votes and will now face Democrat Frank Alcock in November.

Levine doesn’t blame his failure to gain traction completely on financial regulations. He always knew name recognition would be a problem when facing four Republican opponents who all have run in this district before. Nora Patterson was elected three times as a Sarasota Commissioner, state Reps. Greg Steube and Ray Pilon each won three elections to the state House and former state Rep. Doug Holder successfully ran four times in a district entirely contained within the state Senate district.

Time Will Tell

Of course, the lower the office, the better a chance businesspeople have of winning elections. Gruters this year won a primary for state House and is favored to win against Democrat James Golden this November. But even his contest was closer than originally expected. Gruters fought Manatee retiree Steve Vernon in the August primary—with less than 51 percent of the vote. “When I saw I was losing in Manatee County, I was afraid I was going to lose,” he recalls. In the end, Gruters won the GOP nod for State House District 23 by less than 400 votes.During the campaign, Gruters fended off criticisms from Vernon that he simply did not have the time for the job. As a party leader, family man and business owner, Vernon suggested, would the public ever be a priority? Gruters dismissed the critiques as ridiculous—but there was obviously some traction.

So where does that leave the CEO with eyes on public office? Small business owners frequently win city and county level office, and often run on résumés of private sector success. Sarasota County Chairman Al Maio ran a successful development consulting firm for years before running for office, and Manatee County Chairman Vanessa Baugh, who was re-elected in August, founded a jewelry company in 1999 before first being elected in 2012.

Regardless of what happens in the presidential race, this election like any other will certainly boast victories and losses for private sector players who attempt to foray into politics. The work of each political campaign will ultimately decide if a candidate rallies ballots as well as they have rallied business.