"Joe the Plumber" is on the comeback trail.
This month, the iconic small business owner who became a political celebrity in the 2008 presidential campaign, then declared his intention to run for Congress last year, has won the support of former presidential candidate Herman Cain and the editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Now, Mr. Cain has announced his plans to campaign in the Toledo area for Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who is running as a Republican in Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District. Mr. Wurzelbacher, who has vowed to introduce a bill with Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan to Congress if elected, faces a Republican primary March 6.
Yet as unemployment drops and President Obama’s approval ratings inch upward, the president’s most famous everyman critic might have missed his moment, says Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus.
In 2010, the antitax tea party movement – with which Wurzelbacher has aligned himself – was at its height, ushering in a new Republican majority in the House. The man who famously asked then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama about his tax plan, suggesting it would hurt small businesses, could have been a perfect fit.
“The magic moment was really 2010,” says Professor Beck. “Had he been a candidate then he quite well could have ridden that, both to the nomination and a general election victory.”
But that climate has changed in Ohio. Republican state lawmakers swept into office in the tea party revolution appear to have overreached – passing a bill that severely curtailed union rights, only to have the law overturned by a voter initiative.
For Wurzelbacher, the changing political climate in Ohio suggests “the novelty is worn off,” says Beck.
Wurzelbacher retains some advantages in the Republican primary. While the Plain Dealer did not say exactly why it endorsed Wurzelbacher over Steve Kraus, a real estate agent, it commented that the decision was “a close call based more on style.”
Both candidates are against big government spending, reducing regulation that blocks business growth, and excessive taxation. Mr. Kraus told the Plain Dealer that Wurzelbacher’s candidacy amounted to “a sideshow” because of his notoriety.
But that notoriety has helped Wurzelbacher get his message out. “I can get on CNN, I can get on Fox,” he has said. “When something happens, they want to know what Joe the Plumber thinks.”
It also allows him to rub elbows with the likes of Cain.
“Joe is an unconventional candidate, just like I was,” Cain said in a statement. “He shows a true workingman’s appreciation for what it is to be a good steward of the hard-earned money the government takes from us in the form of taxes.”
Since Wurzelbacher shared rally stages with then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin four years ago, he has largely turned his back against his former political benefactors. He said on his website that the experience thrust him into a “political world of lies, distortion, and half-truths.”
News media accounts revealed many points in his story were exaggerated or false: He never held a plumber’s license, according to the local union in Toledo, and reports determined a two-person plumbing business that employed him would be eligible for a tax cut under Obama’s plan.
Since that time, Wurzelbacher rotated through the media spotlights by releasing a book, working as a television pitchman, and getting work as a political commentator and motivational speaker.
The winner of the Republican primary will face either Rep. Marcy Kaptur or Rep. Dennis Kucinich – two Democratic incumbents forced to face each other in the primary because of redistricting. The ninth district stretches along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland.