Ruiz is a freshman from California. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
After Democrat Raul Ruiz defeated GOP Rep. Mary Bono Mack in California’s 36th District in 2012, Republican insiders immediately put this district toward the top of their target list.
After all, though Ruiz won the race by 6 points, 53 percent to 47 percent, he was buoyed by a presidential year and took advantage of the perception that Mack was distracted by her then-husband’s Florida Senate bid.
While some observers of politics apparently are only interested in statistical models that predict electoral outcomes, I have always thought that candidates matter — both during campaigns and, particularly, when the victorious arrive in Washington, D.C.
In fact I have found interviewing congressional candidates one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Last week, I interviewed three credible hopefuls in three interesting races: California Republicans Steve Knight and Jeff Gorell, and Pennsylvania Democrat Val Arkoosh.
David Valadao is a House Republican from California. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
California Republican David Valadao is running for re-election to the 21st District — but you wouldn’t know he’s the incumbent from his ballot designation.
In the Golden State, candidates can choose a short description to accompany their name on the primary and general election ballots. The ballot designation is generally three words, unless it is an official title, and it’s considered an important opportunity to leave a lasting impression on voters before they make their final selection. [Here is a brief explainer from the Riverside Press Enterprise from last year.] Full story
Every six minutes, some reporter in the world is writing about a Republican primary. That’s not to say that GOP primaries don’t matter — because sometimes they do — but there are a handful of Democratic House primaries that could have general election ramifications as well.
Here is a look at five Democratic primaries to watch, in order of primary date:
Illinois’ 13th District Primary: March 18
Democrats are looking to complete their sweep in Illinois by winning the 13th District this fall. Party strategists are ecstatic that former Madison County Judge Ann Callis is running, but she must win the upcoming March 18 primary before focusing on GOP Rep. Rodney Davis.
Callis had $517,000 on hand at the end of December. But University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana physics professor George Gollin had $265,000 on hand thanks in part to a $165,000 candidate loan, and he had a small TV ad buy during the Winter Olympics.
Democrats can’t afford to take the primary for granted. Callis is up with her second TV ad, but still is being outspent on the air, according to Emily Cahn’s Roll Call story. If Gollin wins the nomination, Democrats might punt until the next presidential election.
Democrats have spent the last decade trying to defeat GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach in the 6th District outside Philadelphia. But now that he is retiring, Democrats have to sort out their own May 20 primary before focusing on the general election.
Some Democratic strategists believe businessman Mike Parrish, a former Republican, has the most crossover appeal in a district that Mitt Romney won with 51 percent in 2012. But physician Manan Trivedi announced he is running again after losing to Gerlach in the last two elections.
Parrish raised a quick $100,000 before the end of the year. But Trivedi raised and spent $1.3 million in each of the last two races and built an initial name identification advantage. The Democratic nominee will likely face Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello in the general election.
Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Kevin Strouse was one of Democrats’ earliest recruits of the cycle. He entered the 8th District race in the Philadelphia suburbs nearly a year ago, and the DCCC added him to its Jump Start program for prized recruits. But that doesn’t guarantee Strouse the Democratic nomination, particularly since he didn’t make the initial Red-to-Blue list this week.
Strouse faces publishing company owner and chemist Shaughnessy Naughton in the May 20 primary. Shaughnessy had $177,000 in the bank as of Dec. 31 (compared to $472,000 for Strouse), but she also has the support of EMILY’s List.
The Democratic candidates can’t afford to spend too much on the primary, considering GOP Rep. Mike G. Fitzpatrick had $1.3 million on hand at the end of the year and has maintained consistently favorable polling numbers — even though he represents a potentially competitive district.
The Central Valley-based 21st District was the site of one of Democrats’ worst disasters of the 2012 cycle when they failed to get a quality candidate through the top-two primary. Last cycle’s Democratic candidate, John Hernandez, is running again, and one Republican poll had him leading establishment favorite Amanda Renteria for the second slot against GOP Rep. David Valadao.
Democratic strategists believe Renteria is in better shape than that, but she can’t take the June 3 primary for granted. She had $257,000 on hand at the end of the year while Hernandez has yet to file a report with the Federal Election Commission. But Renteria will likely to spend some of that money, at least on direct mail and not necessarily television, to secure her place in the general election.
At the beginning of the cycle, Democratic strategists identified New Mexico’s 2nd District as trending in their direction, as the Hispanic population continues to grow. The thinking was that GOP Rep. Steve Pearce would be vulnerable in four or six years, that is, until former Eddy County Commissioner Roxanne “Rocky” Lara entered the race.
Democrats believe she is the right candidate to win the seat this year and added her to the committee’s Jump Start program last year and its Red-to-Blue program this week. But the scenario is likely dependent on Lara winning the June 3 primary over attorney Leslie Endean-Singh. While Lara entered the race in September, Endean-Singh had a five-month head start and $93,000 (including more than $50,000 in personal loans) in the bank at the end of December.
Holt announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of this Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Two more members of Congress decided this would be their final term, but their exits don’t change the battle for the majority in the House. And contrary to an all-too-common media narrative, their departures do not signal an exodus from the House of Representatives.
“Two Democrats Join Exodus From U.S. Congress,” according to a recent Reuters headline and accompanying story, which described “44 Members of the House and Senate” leaving Congress after this year. But that is very misleading because it conveys the sense that we are witnessing an atypical, wholesale exit from Washington. But that’s simply not borne out by the data.
This cycle, congressional retirements have come in bunches, with House members announcing their decisions within days (or sometimes hours) of each other.
Reps. Gloria Negrete McLeod and Rush D. Holt are two good examples of the importance of making distinctions when counting retirements. I don’t consider Negrete McLeod, a California Democrat, a retirement since she is running for another office — granted, one that is outside the Beltway. I am counting the New Jersey Democrat as a true retirement since he is not seeking another office this year.
But the only way the Reuters reporter (and others) can come up with a higher number of “retirements” is to include House members who are running for another office, including the dozen representatives who are running for the Senate. It’s not an exodus from Congress if members are trying to stay in Washington and merely move their offices from one side of the Hill to the other. Full story
Republican and Democratic operatives might be dreaming of spending the fall in San Diego as California’s 52nd District becomes entrenched as one of the most competitive races in the country this cycle. Democratic Rep. Scott Peters defeated GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray in 2012 but is facing a very serious challenge from former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio.
This race just doesn’t fit the regular mold. Peters finished the year with $1.1 million in campaign funds compared to $986,000 for DeMaio. Usually, challengers need considerable resources to overcome a name identification gap. But after a high-profile (though unsuccessful) bid for mayor of San Diego, DeMaio may actually start the race with higher name ID than the incumbent.
Barack Obama carried the district in both 2008 and 2012, but heading into a midterm election when turnout will likely dip, it’s just hard to see Peters having a distinct advantage in the race right now. California’s 52nd District is now rated by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call as Pure Tossup, switching from Tossup/Tilt Democrat.
After a flurry of surprise retirements, GOP Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon’s announcement was one of the worst-kept secrets of the last year. So even though the district is competitive, Republicans weren’t caught off guard and have two credible candidates already in the race.
The California congressman’s exit has been rumored for a long time. Jon Fleischman of the California-based Flash Report reported last April that McKeon was telling people that he may retire. Full story
Baca has said he will attempt to come back to Congress in 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Last week, an article in the San Bernardino County Sun speculated that Democratic Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod may run for county supervisor instead of seeking another congressional term, or may not run for re-election at all. If true, this could help House Democrats clear up one of their bigger headaches of the 2014 cycle.
According to the Sun, “sources say [McLeod] isn’t interested in another term in Congress.” That prompted me to consider whether former Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., might switch races from the 31st District, where he is running now, to the 35th District, where he ran and lost to McLeod in 2012.
But now I’m wondering whether Baca is running at all. Let me explain. Full story
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