Most of those Democrats either had no record or seemed prepared to run as pragmatists. And while Robertson also offered platitudes about bipartisanship, it was not hard to see that she was the most progressive of the Democrats I met that week.
Robertson’s liberal views aren’t all that surprising considering the district’s partisan and ideological polarization. The single largest bloc of Democratic votes comes from Tompkins County, a Democratic bastion that includes the city of Ithaca and both Cornell University and Ithaca College. 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.
Bishop is a GOP target in 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republicans don’t yet have the candidate they want in New York’s 1st District against Democratic Rep. Timothy H. Bishop. But a couple close contests and an ongoing investigation is giving the GOP hope of winning the seat next year.
The eastern Long Island district has a history of competitiveness. Bishop won re-election by 593 votes (less than half of 1 percentage point) in 2010 and by 11,047 votes (4 points) in 2012, both times over Republican Randy Altschuler.
Last week, Democratic activist Sean Eldridge officially announced his run in New York’s 19th District against GOP Rep. Chris Gibson.
But there was one glaring issue left out of his nearly-three-minute introductory Web video: marriage equality.
The omission was noteworthy because Eldridge, who is gay and married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, has dedicated almost all of his adult life to fighting for marriage equality. Divorcing himself from the polarizing issue in a competitive congressional race might be difficult.
There are no accidents in professional campaign ads, and that is precisely what Eldridge’s Web video was. It had all the right buzzwords, such as “independent voice,” “working families,” break the “gridlock,” supporting Planned Parenthood and on and on. So the omission of marriage equality is not by chance.
A lone competitive Senate race in West Virginia and a few competitive House seats set the stage in the Mid-Atlantic region next year.
The bad news for Democrats is that the early list of top House races contains just one district in Pennsylvania. They would likely need closer to a handful of competitive House seats in the Keystone State, a traditional battleground, to get back to the majority after 2014.
Here are the top five races to watch in the Mid-Atlantic region next year: Full story
Recchia is running for Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic prospects of taking back the House in 2014 may be remote, but two Democratic congressional challengers I interviewed recently have the potential to knock off GOP incumbents next year. At the very least, their races are worth watching.
New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia is off and running in a Staten Island/Brooklyn district against two-term GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm, who can’t afford to take this challenger lightly.
And in the Florida Panhandle, attorney Gwen Graham, daughter of former Florida Gov. and former Sen. Bob Graham, is mounting what looks to be a potentially serious challenge to two-term GOP Rep. Steve Southerland II. Full story