Rep. Thaddeus McCotter brought his guitar to his presidential announcement earlier this month in Whitmore Lake, Mich.
Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have cultivated a national following that has propelled their presidential campaigns and ambitions.
Then there’s Thaddeus McCotter, a chain-smoking, guitar-playing Congressman who seems destined to be a footnote when history looks back on the 2012 race.
While his colleagues can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars via one email or “money bomb,” the Michigan Republican’s quixotic bid provokes more head-scratching than it earns headlines or cash.
Known for his wonkiness, his quirky personality and his musical abilities, even McCotter acknowledges his goal is far from finishing well at the Ames straw poll next month.
“We view it as an introduction, not as a test,” McCotter said in an interview with Roll Call.
Back home in Michigan, McCotter could have bigger problems on his hands than a fledgling presidential bid. Local press have skewered his national campaign, and a Republican state Senator is already running for his seat.
All of this prompts speculation that this could be the Congressman’s last term in the House, and even McCotter won’t commit to running again for re-election.
“I’m not entertaining that. I’m focused on the presidency,” he said. “That’s my No. 1 goal.”
Lennon and Camel Lights
It’s not uncommon to find McCotter strumming his guitar alone in his Congressional office. In between votes, the lanky Republican smokes on the Speaker’s balcony, taking a drag off a Camel Light held between his thumb and two fingers.
A few years ago, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) counted McCotter as one of his closest acolytes. But the married father of three is more of a loner these days.
Four years after the GOP Conference elected McCotter chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, he surprised his colleagues in 2010 by calling for its disintegration. His proposal to return the RPC’s funding to the Treasury Department increased his tensions with leadership, already exacerbated over the years by his penchant for using curse words during meetings.
McCotter’s quirks are legendary among Hill staffers, and aides who work for him tend to either love or hate the Congressman. He has employed at least nine senior press aides over almost 10 years, according to employment records on LegiStorm, but his most recent chief of staff stayed for several years.
McCotter has been known to summon aides to informal staff meetings in his car, driving around while smoking. When a job candidate once asked him why he became a Republican, McCotter’s response included, “Because I hate commies.”
His office walls display posters of the Rolling Stones and John Lennon.
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), one of McCotter’s Congressional bandmates in the bipartisan group the Second Amendments, praised his guitar-playing talent but chuckled when he described McCotter as “a mercurial spirit.”
“So far, his presidential race hasn’t affected us” in the band, Peterson said. “I think he’s a long shot.”
But not all of his colleagues are so quick to dismiss McCotter, who is hiring staff in Iowa and New Hampshire while running his White House campaign out of his Plymouth, Mich., headquarters.
“I think once he has the opportunity to get on the debate stage, which he will — he’ll be in the Iowa debate on Aug. 11 — I think he will mix it up,” Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) said. “I know everybody’s saying that he has no chance, but I would say keep an eye on him.”
Two decades ago, the suburbs west of Detroit knew another McCotter better. Republicans recall that it was Livonia City Clerk Joan McCotter who helped kick off her son’s political career as Wayne County commissioner in 1993.
“I think he truly likes history and government,” former Michigan Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said. “I think that’s innate in him, but I do think that his mom kind of said, ‘You can do it, son.’ Since she had a lot of connections, she campaigned for him and worked hard for him. He had a built-in campaign organization.”
But McCotter and his mother dispute the notion that she gave him a leg up in local politics.
Joan McCotter called to take issue with a March 2002 column by Roll Call contributing writer Stuart Rothenberg after he attributed the younger McCotter’s success to her.
But, as the Congressman recalls, it wasn’t her idea that he launch a career in public service.
“She didn’t particularly welcome the idea,” McCotter said. “She had mixed emotions about the whole thing. But I was inspired by Reagan. That’s why I entered the party in the first place.”
In 1998, McCotter won a seat in the state Senate. One of his signature pieces of legislation was the removal of dozens of outdated Michigan laws, including one from 1915 that rewarded 10 cents to anyone bringing in a dead rat’s head. City clerks, including McCotter’s mother, had to burn those rat heads under the old law.
He was equally as quirky then as he is today. After hours, he fraternized with a group of staffers and Senators known as “The Pipefitters.” He wrote poetry and song lyrics under a pen name, Powell B. Knighton.
In 2001, McCotter ran the expulsion hearings for one of his colleagues, a state Senator forced out of the chamber for misconduct. Sources say he took on the role in exchange for an influential spot on the redistricting committee. Later that year, McCotter played a large role in crafting the 11th district seat that he went on to win in 2002.
Not a Fan of Fundraising
McCotter’s first Congressional race was not an easy win, former campaign aides said. He initially attracted zero opposition, but a business-friendly Democrat entered the race late in the cycle.
Republican operative Jason Roe and others described McCotter as a reluctant candidate, especially when it came to fundraising. Roe remembers a candidate who “didn’t want to do anything but sit in his office, smoke cigarettes and play guitar.” The National Republican Congressional Committee eventually sent help for McCotter.
“It was a district that was perfectly suited to him,” Roe said. “But based on the dysfunction of his campaign — his dysfunction — the NRCC was very concerned about his ability to win the seat he drew for himself.”
McCotter disputes this account of events. He eventually defeated Democrat Kevin Kelley by a huge margin, 57 percent to 40 percent.
“We’ve always raised enough money to win. It worked,” McCotter said. “I’m not one who raises just to raise it. You have to raise it for the certain purpose of getting elected. ... And you only ask when you absolutely need to.”
Indeed, that time appears to be now.
He’s going to have to raise substantially more than the $521,000 he had in his campaign account at the end June to compete on the national scale.
‘Bald Guys Don’t Get Talk Shows’
While McCotter spends weekends in Ames, his future is more uncertain in Livonia.
Local newspapers panned his presidential ambition, chalking up his White House aspirations to his ego. The Oakland Press described the thought of him being president as “a bit scary,” calling him “cold, arrogant and egotistical.”
Meanwhile, McCotter’s district is safer for Republicans than it’s ever been. Republicans recently passed a new Congressional map that shored up the competitive territory he has represented for almost a decade.
The seat is attractive enough that another GOP candidate, state Sen. Mike Kowall, announced he’s running for it while McCotter presses the flesh in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Right now, Congressman McCotter says he’s running for president. People here are under the assumption he’s not running again,” Kowall said.
And given his indiscernible path to the GOP nod, some Michigan Republicans muse openly that he’s angling for something else besides a spot on the national ticket. Land suggested he could end up eventually with a policy position in the White House.
McCotter denies that he’s aiming for anything less than the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. address, of course.
“Nope. Please. Bald guys don’t get talk shows,” he said.
Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations for the IRS, arrives for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the investigation of the IRS' targeting of political groups. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify and caused a protest from some committee members when she offered an opening statement and engaged in dialogue with members before invoking the right.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.