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Is History on House Members’ Side in 2012?

Courtesy Library of Congress
James A. Garfield is the only president who was elected directly from the House.

Even longtime political analysts sometimes fall into a rut, and thatís where Iíve been in thinking about whether a Member of the House of Representatives can be nominated for president.

ďNo,Ē has been my knee-jerk reaction, falling back on the time-tested explanation that House members donít get nominated by major parties, and only one president has ever been elected directly from the House. That was James A. Garfield (R), who had already been elected to the Senate ó though never sworn in ó when voters picked him to hold the nationís top job.

But with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann expected to enter the GOP race, and growing speculation that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) might also eventually jump in, itís time for me to reassess.

The last major party candidates nominated while they were in the House or just after they had left the House were William Jennings Bryan (D) in 1896, Garfield in 1880 and Horace Greeley (Whig) in 1872.

As a general rule, few House Members run for president, and those who do usually fare poorly. (By comparison, Senators frequently run for president, with a record four of them seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008.)

During the past 50 years, only a few sitting House Members have been regarded as serious contenders for a presidential nod: Democratic Reps. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) in 1988 and 2004 and Mo Udall (Ariz.) in 1976 and Republican Rep. Jack Kemp in 1988. Illinois Rep. John Anderson ran a credible race for the GOP nomination in 1980 until dropping out to run for president as an Independent.

Other House Members have sought a major party nomination, but they have usually been either long shots hoping lightning would strike, such as California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter (2008) and Illinois Republican Rep. Phil Crane (1980), or ideologues with a vocal but very narrow following, such as Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (2004 and 2008), California Republican Rep. Bob Dornan (1996) and Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul (in 2008 and again in 2012).

Another House Budget Committee chairman, then-Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), formed a long-shot exploratory committee to run for president in February 1999 but abandoned his bid just five months later and endorsed George W. Bush.

From a practical point of view, few House Members have national visibility or fundraising ability to mount a serious run for the White House. According to a 1999 report from CNNís John King, one of the reasons Kasich dropped out in the summer of that year was that he had raised just $1.6 million and had transferred another $1.4 million from his House account. Bush, then governor of Texas and the frontrunner, had raised $36 million.

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