JEFFERSON CITY — It's a tough sell for a political candidate facing a skeptical electorate: "I'm here from Washington, and I'd like your vote."
Yet candidates for state offices across the country — including one in Missouri — are trying to make it work, braving a new wave of anti-Washington sentiment. They face low congressional approval ratings and public bitterness about business bailouts, budget deficits and other federal policies.
Roughly two dozen current and former top federal officials have decided to return home and are campaigning to continue their political careers in state office buildings, hoping their federal government ties don't prove toxic.
In Missouri, Republican auditor candidate Tom Schweich touts his federal government experience and has sought to attach the "insider" status to his primary opponent — a state lawmaker. Schweich worked for the U.S. Mission at the United Nations and the State Department under President George W. Bush and describes the work as law enforcement.
That federal experience, he contends, guarantees he has seen every form of corruption.
"When people understand he was in Mexico fighting the border war, he was in Afghanistan and Pakistan fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida, he was in China fighting money-laundering and in Russia fighting organized crime and human trafficking syndicates, they're going to say, 'OK this is our kind of guy,'" Schweich said.
State Rep. Allen Icet, who also is claiming the outsider banner in the GOP primary, said there is a distinction between his work for state and local governments and Schweich's federal government service.
"To some voters, I think they'll look at his background and say, 'I don't want someone who has federal experience,'" Icet said.
Plenty of candidates hope voters don't care too much.
One U.S. senator is the front-runner to be governor of Kansas, a former senator is running for governor in Rhode Island and another is running for attorney general in Ohio. The former ambassador to Ireland is competing for the governor's mansion in Connecticut, and the Nevada gubernatorial race pits a federal judge against the son of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Plus, several current and former members of Congress have leapt into campaigns for statewide offices.
Some have not been welcomed warmly.
Connections to Washington were part of the fatal blow for four-term South Carolina Congressman Gresham Barrett, who lost in the Republican primary for governor to a state lawmaker initially viewed as a long-shot. Barrett was criticized for his vote in Congress supporting the bank bailout legislation, called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and was booed last year at a tea party rally.
Florida gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum faces resistance in an intense Republican primary against business leader and political newcomer Rick Scott. McCollum, who left Congress in 2001 after serving two decades and now is the state's attorney general, has been skewered through TV ads and criticized for his votes in Congress.
One ad likens politicians to a baby's soiled diaper that must be changed and criticizes McCollum for a record that "stinks" over congressional pay raises. In a matter of months, the former congressman, who also has been attacked for working as a lobbyist, has gone from apparent shoo-in for the GOP nomination to trailing in the polls.
Campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said McCollum left Washington with budget surpluses and before spending problems started. Since then, he has battled the federal government as attorney general over health care and immigration, she said.
"He's got a record that he's very proud of," Campbell said. "He's done things to advance the conservative movement in Florida and across the nation."
The stigma of federal ties and incumbency seems to be more potent so far in Republican primaries, said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. He said there is a strong current favoring "virtuous amateurs" over those who seem to be professional politicians.
But pointing too strongly to an opponent's Washington ties poses some risks for Democrats, whose colleagues control Congress and the White House and have pushed through controversial health care and economic policies that have helped to kindle the animosity.
Democratic Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, an ally of President Barack Obama, has steered clear of Washington-bashing against his opponent John Kasich, a former Republican congressman.
That's partly because Kasich's time in Congress was a while ago — in the 1980s and 1990s — and partly because Strickland has incorporated $4.1 billion in stimulus money from the federal government into his election-year economic message. Strickland has focused instead on Kasich's job after leaving Washington — eight years as a managing director at Lehman Brothers, the failed Wall Street bank.
During campaign stops and interviews, Kasich, a former Fox News commentator, still touts his role in helping balance the budget when he served as the chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Yet many candidates with Washington ties could face troubles with voters.
"Any degree of Washington-insideness is going to be vulnerable on the campaign trail," Connor said.
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.