The Old Vs. the Newer

Members’ Comebacks Not All Created Equal

Posted November 21, 2007 at 2:55pm

In the campaign world, a former Member of Congress making a political comeback can be a double-edged sword.

This election cycle, several former Members are currently seeking their old seats, or at least contemplating the possibility, and in doing so they are creating a particular dynamic that could help or hurt their party’s chances next November.

Consequently, national party leaders are encouraging the comebacks in some cases — and are being considerably less enthusiastic in others.

When a Member loses his or her seat, “obviously there’s some kind of problem. You’ve been rejected once,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. And as national and local party officials look to the next election “they may think that a new face is going to be helpful. But a new face does have to first get known, often has to learn how to campaign and like any thing else … when you first learn how to do it you can make errors,” Bullock said.

Meanwhile, a former Member comes complete with name recognition and important tools like fundraising lists and a previous campaign organization.

For example, one-time Rep. Mac Collins (R-Ga.), who lost to Rep. Jim Marshall (D) last year by fewer than 2,000 votes, has refused to rule out the possibility of running again. If he did enter the race he would certainly be formidable, but this cycle, the Republican establishment has made it clear that its candidate is retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard, a decorated veteran. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) already has headlined a fundraiser for Goddard.

If Collins were to enter the contest there is little doubt that he would create a debilitating primary, which would be welcome news to Marshall — who is facing a primary of his own in a district that tilts heavily toward Republicans in national elections.

But despite the fact that many national party leaders privately have been hoping he would pass on the race, Collins had not taken his name out of consideration as of the Thanksgiving holiday.

“The party is always better off if you don’t have to do a bloodletting to get” to your candidate, Bullock said. And the entrance of a former Member into any ongoing race “could certainly put a dampener on a new candidate’s efforts to line up supporters, both financial as well as people who would work in your campaign. There would potentially be some people who would feel a loyalty to the old Member.”

In North Carolina, ex-Rep. Charles Taylor (R) has recently closed his campaign committee but has still not taken his name off the table for a 2008 run for his old seat (Taylor could self-fund if he needed to). And his indecision has kept some potential top-tier GOP candidates on the sidelines.

So far two possible contenders, state Sen. Tom Apodaca and District Attorney Jeff Hunt, already have decided not to challenge Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), in part because of the uncertainty over Taylor’s status.

Like Taylor, most of the former Members now involved in races this year are Republicans trying to reclaim the seats they lost in 2006, when they were swept out of office by the national Democratic wave.

“A lot of those individuals are ex-Members because of the national environment that occurred in 2006,” said GOP pollster David Winston, also a Roll Call contributing writer. “I’m sure there were lots of situations where the [National Republican Congressional Committee] was out hoping that there was going to be rematches” this year.

For example, Winston said, former Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) got caught up “in just a truly bad year and so it was more about the political environment than her performance as a Member of Congress.”

Hart, who served three terms, opted to challenge Rep. Jason Altmire (D) in a rematch, but she first has to face former Allegheny County Councilman Ron Francis (R) in the primary.

Political observers aren’t viewing Francis as a huge threat to Hart, who raised about $235,000 in the third quarter. Francis raised only $48,000.

But Hart’s interest in a rematch with Altmire didn’t prevent GOP recruiters from leaning on former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann, the 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee, to enter the race.

In Kansas, ex-Rep. Jim Ryun (R) is running a strong campaign in a heavily Republican district, hoping to take back his seat from now-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D). Ryun has been campaigning since January with a renewed enthusiasm that some political professionals say he lacked before he lost his race. But he has drawn a primary opponent in state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (R). The Kansas GOP has been split by ideological divisions for more than a decade, and the primary between the conservative Ryun and the more moderate Jenkins is a reprise of those divisions.

On the Democratic side, there’s a chance that the entrance of former Rep. Leslie Byrne into the race in Virginia’s 11th district could cause some discomfort for party leaders.

Democratic officials have been trying to recruit Gerry Connolly, the popular Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman, into that race.

Byrne, who in 1992 was the first woman elected to Congress in the Commonwealth, lost her Congressional seat after just one term to now-Rep. Tom Davis (R), who has not said yet whether he will seek an eighth term in 2008. Connolly is seen as likely to run if Davis retires but unlikely to if the Congressman decides to seek re-election.

But one Democratic operative said last week that Byrne, who has served in the state Senate since losing her House seat and was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2005, is a very viable candidate. Even if Connolly gets into the race, a civil primary could be a good thing if it helps the eventual winner build name recognition and get into fighting shape, the operative said.

Though she last served on Capitol Hill 13 years ago, Byrne said she believes her time in Congress is likely going to play an important part of her campaign this cycle.

“I was the first woman ever elected to Congress from Virginia and there are people throughout the Commonwealth who remember me in my Congressional role because it was kind of a ground-breaking role,” she said.

Meanwhile, winning the 11th district handily during the 2005 statewide race also helps, Byrne said.

“I’m not expecting the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] to get involved prior to the primary date but then I think they will look at this district with a 53 percent Democratic performance and me having carried it with 55 percent of the vote in 2005 and say ‘oh this is a good place to put our help,’” she said.