Bilbray will try to unseat Heck in 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
In this political environment, not having an extensive legislative record can be an asset. Not surprisingly then, three of six Democratic House candidates I interviewed recently have never before sought elective office, and a fourth was elected as a judge, not a legislator. (I will discuss a seventh Democratic hopeful, Martha Robertson, in a separate column.)
Considered as a group, the half-dozen hopefuls deserve to be mentioned in any discussion of Democratic House takeover opportunities in 2014. The only question is how many of them will continue to be in the conversation one year from today. 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.
Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. wants to run for Congress when GOP Rep. Howard Coble’s 6th District seat becomes open, and local sources say the elder Berger wasn’t interested in taking a political step this cycle that might hurt his son’s chances.
Berger wouldn’t have to give up his post as one of the most powerful politicians in the state just because his son was running for Congress. But he has been openly supportive of his son’s political aspirations in private conversations and realized that a Senate run could make his son’s life more complicated. Full story
Democrats had a much easier road to victory next November in Illinois, but state Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s decision not to run for governor will take her party down a much messier path.
The party now faces a competitive primary between incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, whose job-approval rating has been dismal in limited public polling, and former White House chief of staff/former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley.
There are two things we know right now: 1. None of the Democrats will start the general election as strong as Madigan would have, and 2. the Illinois Republican Party is at least slightly dysfunctional.
Republicans are headed for a crowded primary. Wealthy venture capitalist Bruce Rauner starts as a political unknown but plans to spend millions of dollars on his campaign. State Sen. Bill Brady (who lost the 2010 general election to Quinn), state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, and state Sen. Kirk Dillard (who lost in the 2010 gubernatorial primary) are running as well.
The bottom line is that Republican chances have improved simply because the strongest possible Democratic candidate has taken herself out of consideration. We are moving the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating of the race from Democrat Favored to Lean Democrat. But that is still a long way from being a great GOP opportunity.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has endured weeks of negative headlines as The Washington Post thoroughly examines his relationship with a campaign donor. But as the investigation moves along, his wife, first lady Maureen McDonnell, is coming under increased scrutiny as well.
Depending on the level of the Virginia governor’s involvement and legal jeopardy, his future political career is uncertain. McDonnell is prohibited from seeking re-election this fall but he was on the outskirts of the 2016 presidential discussion before the scandal broke. And he might have the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate over the next decade, if he so chooses.
The Midwest has traditionally been the land of the House races. But the open Senate seat in Michigan is unlikely to become very competitive, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., is closer to making his race a laughingstock than Republicans are to defeating him.
But the region is filled with competitive House races, most of which Democrats must win to get to the majority. Here are the top five races in the Midwest next year:
Illinois’ 13th District. Democrats love their likely nominee, former Madison County Circuit Court Chief Judge Ann Callis. And they want to defeat freshman Rep. Rodney Davis to complete their set of districts they redrew before the 2012 elections following the decennial redistricting. Davis also is being challenged by former Miss America Erika Harold, a Harvard graduate and attorney, in the primary. This should be one of the top races anywhere in the country. Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating: Toss-Up/Tilt Republican. Read the full Rothenberg Political Report analysis here ($). Full story
Election Day is still more than a year away, but Illinois Republican Bruce Rauner is already deploying a popular campaign weapon: the barn jacket.
Rauner released two television ads on Tuesday in his bid to become the next governor in the Prairie State. In “Back to Work,” the wealthy venture capitalist dons a barn jacket and declares, “I’m a citizen, not a politician.”