In 2007, William Petit survived a brutal home invasion in which his wife and two daughters were killed. Last year, Amar Kaleka’s father was killed in the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Now, both men are seriously considering running for office.
But the road from family tragedy to Congress is not easy. Just ask Patty Wetterling.
“I’m the last person you want [anyone] to talk to,” said Wetterling, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice as a Democrat after her son was kidnapped in 1989. “It’s very difficult to recommend someone go through this.”
Wetterling’s tragic experience drew her into a journey of child safety advocacy, which raised her profile locally and nationally. In 2004, she decided to run for Congress in Minnesota’s 6th District and started the race with 90 percent name recognition.
Then things turned sour. Many voters immediately recategorized her from a sympathetic victim of a violent crime to a partisan politician.
“Once I became a candidate, 50 percent automatically didn’t like me,” Wetterling recalled. “I was surprised. I was naive. But I was also altruistic in my reasons for doing it.”
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat who was elected to Congress in the wake of her own family tragedy, had warned Wetterling of the impending political onslaught.
And so it came to pass. Over the course of the campaign, Wetterling’s image shifted, in part thanks to incumbent Rep. Mark Kennedy’s tough campaign against her.
“The more we learn about Patty Wetterling, the more surprised we are,” intoned the narrator of one of the GOP congressman’s ads as a photo of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed rolled across the screen. “Patty Wetterling took $80,000 from a group that opposed fighting terrorists in Afghanistan after 9/11.”
“If I looked at those ads, I wouldn’t have voted for me,” Wetterling said in an interview. She was also frustrated by the advice from her Democratic strategists to avoid her son Jacob’s story. She didn’t even like the ads run by her own campaign.
“Everyone was so afraid of it appearing like I was a single-issue candidate that they steered me into everything except for that,” Wetterling remembered. “I didn’t get to tell my story.”
Wetterling lost the 2004 race to Kennedy, 54 percent to 46 percent. Two years later, she entered the U.S. Senate race. But she eventually deferred to Amy Klobuchar and switched back to the 6th District race, which was then open because Kennedy was running for Senate.
Wetterling lost 50 percent to 42 percent to then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann, despite the Democratic wave of 2006.
“I’m not sure I ever could have won,” Wetterling said, looking back. She ran in a conservative district that President George W. Bush carried, 57 percent to 42 percent in 2004.
That’s part of the challenge facing Kaleka in Wisconsin’s 1st District. Not only would he be taking on well-funded GOP Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Barack Obama’s 51 percent victory in the district in 2008 likely masks the difficulty any Democrat would have in winning the seat. Bush won it by 9 points in 2004 and Mitt Romney carried it by 5 points in 2012.
There’s also no guarantee Kaleka will be the Democratic nominee. Last cycle’s nominee, Rob Zerban, hasn’t officially announced his intentions, but his operation sends frequent fundraising solicitations and he continues to boast about holding Ryan to his lowest ever re-election percentage (55 percent).
Petit would likely face similar challenges as a Republican in a blue state. He told the Hartford Courant recently that he’s “50-50” on whether to challenge to Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty in the 5th District.
Two-time GOP candidate Mark Greenberg is running again and he is already collecting endorsements. And at least one other candidate is considering a run as well.
Like Wetterling and Kaleka, Petit would start the general election at a partisan disadvantage. Even though Esty was elected with just 51 percent, Obama carried the district twice with 54 percent (2012) and 56 percent (2008), and John Kerry won it narrowly in 2004.
Other candidates who have experienced personal tragedies have also faced mixed electoral records.
Democrat Ron Barber was injured in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting that also wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. He won the subsequent special election with 52 percent in Arizona’s 2nd District to replace his former boss.
Tammy Duckworth had a tough transition from war hero to candidate. She lost both of her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004. Two years later, Duckworth was one of the most high-profile House candidates ever. But she barely made it out of the Democratic primary in Illinois’ 6th District and lost a very competitive general election to Republican Peter Roskam, even though there was a Democratic wave that year. Duckworth was finally elected in 2012 after Democrats redrew the 8th District to be more Democratic.
Going even further back, Democratic aide Jackie Speier was wounded in the 1978 shooting that took the life of California Rep. Leo Ryan. She ran and lost in the subsequent special election, but went on to a long career in the California Legislature before she was elected to Congress in 2008.
DeMaio is running for Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
There aren’t many congressional races where a challenger is running ahead of an incumbent in the polls more than a year and a half before Election Day, but that’s the situation in California’s 52nd District.
Two polls (one GOP survey in the spring and a media survey in June) show former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican, running ahead of Democratic Rep. Scott Peters.
With a little more than a year before Election Day, Republican and Democratic operatives are searching for quality candidates in more than a handful of districts. Both sides want as many offensive opportunities as possible to keep the other side pinned down in their own territory.
Down 17 seats, Democrats need more GOP takeover opportunities to make up for any losses and so they don’t have to win all of the competitive seats to get back to the majority next November. Full story
Renteria was Stabenow’s chief of staff in 2008. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
It’s no secret Democrats whiffed at a huge opportunity in California’s 21st District last cycle. And while it’s taken them awhile to get their footing, it looks like they have found a candidate that could run a competitive race that matches the competitive district.
In 2012, Republican David Valadao won the Northern California seat with 58 percent over a flawed Democratic nominee who national Democratic strategists tried to defeat in the primary. Because President Barack Obama simultaneously carried the seat with 55 percent and the district is about 70 percent Hispanics, Democrats desperately searched for a credible contender this cycle.
Now it looks as if Central Valley native and former Capitol Hill aide Amanda Renteria is poised to enter the race for the Democrats, according to operatives tracking the race.
Local races rarely have an impact on statewide or congressional elections, but a trio of local races this year could have an effect on three competitive House districts next year.
The most immediate example is the special election for mayor of San Diego.
Republican former City Councilman Carl DeMaio lost the 2012 mayoral election to Democratic Rep. Bob Filner. But DeMaio is using that narrow loss as a springboard to challenge Democratic Rep. Scott Peters in the 52nd District, and the challenger starts that race in a very strong position.
DeMaio was thought to be preparing to drop his congressional bid in order to run in the special election to replace the discredited and recently resigned Filner. Doing that would have taken a top GOP challenger off the table for the National Republican Congressional Committee. But instead, DeMaio has re-affirmed his congressional bid, and he remains a strong Republican challenger for Congress next year because of his high name identification, proven vote-getting ability in the area and fundraising power. Full story
Walters is running for Congress. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
Republican state Sen. Mimi Walters has a 94 percent lifetime rating with California’s anti-tax group, but that might not be enough for her to avoid a anti-tax primary challenger as she runs for Congress.
Walters is the early front-runner to replace retiring Rep. John Campbell (click here for Roll Call’s interview with her). And by every traditional measure, she should win the seat easily. But one vote for a Democrat-sponsored tax extension (SB 11) is being viewed as ideological treason by some anti-tax conservatives.
Even in good Republican years, the West has proved to be something of a Democratic firewall. But in 2014, Republicans will likely need to win a big Senate race in Alaska to have any chance of flipping the chamber. And if the GOP were to suffer a three- or four-seat loss in California House seats, it might well put its control of the U.S. House in jeopardy.
Here are the top five races to watch in the West next year:
Alaska Senate. Defeating Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is crucial for Republicans if they plan on being in the majority in the Senate. The GOP will have a primary, but as long as the party does not nominate Joe Miller again, the party should be in the ballgame on Election Day. Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating: Tossup/Tilt Democrat. Get the full Rothenberg Political Report analysis here ($).
California’s 52nd District. Democratic Rep. Scott Peters defeated GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray last year in a San Diego-area district, but he is already a Republican target. Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio is running close to Peters, and the race has hardly started. DeMaio, who is openly gay, is running as a new kind of Republican, but Democrats plan to tell another story. Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating: Lean Democrat. Full story
It may look as if Democrats are seeking a creative new way to fumble away California’s 31st District, but they aren’t in as bad a shape as it might seem.
In 2012, two Republicans finished in the top two in the primary, leaving Democrats without a candidate in the general election and an opportunity to win the seat. It was particularly tough because President Barack Obama won the seat with 57 percent last year and a Democratic congressional candidate would have been favored to win the seat Full story
Politics is a rough-and-tumble business, with campaigns bringing whatever resources they can to the table. But are there limits to what consultants, particularly pollsters, should do for their clients?
I raise that question after reading a May 18 memo from Celinda Lake and four other members of her firm, Lake Research Partners, that sought to discredit a May 14-16 USC Price/Los Angeles Times survey of the Los Angeles mayoral race. Full story
Miller is seeking re-election in a competitive district. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Gary G. Miller, R-Calif., is one of Democrats’ top takeover targets in the House. But to hold his seat, GOP strategists might consider finding another Republican to run against him.
In 2012, Democrats had a math problem. Two Republicans and four Democrats ran in the same June primary, after which, the top two, regardless of party, moved on to the general election. It was the first cycle for the system in California and no one was quite sure how it would play out. Full story