Once Blue-Chip Candidates, Now Duds

Posted March 3, 2008 at 6:34pm

National Democrats and Republicans spend most of the off-year focusing on two key areas: recruiting and fundraising.

But as the cycle progresses, candidates move from names on a piece of paper to the campaign trail, where the road can be much tougher. And in the end, some candidates simply don’t live up to the hype and some races never develop into serious contests.

Recently, Republicans lost not only a candidate but a nominee when New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann dropped out of the race in Illinois’ 11th district. His departure gives Democrats an additional advantage in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R).

According to his public remarks, the candidate apparently didn’t comprehend the demands of the campaign trail until two weeks after he secured the GOP nomination on Feb. 5. Baldermann’s move wasn’t entirely surprising, since the mayor commented late last year about how much he despised fundraising.

Democrats almost faced a similar situation in West Virginia.

State Sen. John Unger (D) launched his bid to unseat Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) late last spring in West Virginia’s 2nd district, but he dropped out hours before the filing deadline in late January. Anne Barth (D), a former aide to Sen. Robert Byrd (D), filed for the race at the last second.

Publicly, Unger explained that he believed asking people for money would make him beholden to special interests. But privately, Unger blamed Gov. Joe Manchin (D) for thwarting his fundraising.

“Absolutely the furthest thing from the truth,” Manchin replied in a recent interview, when he was in Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association meeting. “He was hesitant from day one. You have to be totally committed to these things.”

As a Democrat representing a Republican-leaning legislative district, Unger’s candidacy generated considerable early excitement.

Even though Unger had a couple of nominal primary opponents, he was endorsed by West Virginia Reps. Alan Mollohan (D) and Nick Rahall (D), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Manchin and the West Virginia AFL-CIO. But the Democrat was unable to translate that support into campaign dollars.

Unger filed his candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission on July 3, raised $120,000 through December and finished the year with $68,000 on hand. Those are meager totals for any House race, let alone a challenge to a tough incumbent like Capito, who had $644,000 in the bank on Dec. 31.

Rumors circulated in Washington and on the Internet that Manchin was working to force Unger out of the race because of some sort of nonaggression pact with Capito. But Manchin emphatically denies he did anything of the sort and resents being blamed for Unger’s failed candidacy.

“I was there for him in 2006. I was there for him in 2008. He just didn’t pick up the ball and run with it,” said the governor, detailing his support for Unger in the state Senator’s 2006 re-election race. Manchin also introduced Unger to top aides at the Democratic Governors Association (where he is now the chairman) in an effort to boost the candidate’s campaign by broadening his potential fundraising base.

“He has to grow up, but he’s got a good heart,” Manchin said. “I was disappointed that he waited to the last moment [to drop out], but I’m elated with Anne Barth.”

Unger certainly is not the only candidate to ever flame out, even in West Virginia. In the previous cycle, Republicans heavily promoted state Del. Chris Wakim in the 1st district, before embarrassing revelations about inflating his military service torpedoed his effort.

Over the past few cycles, each party has had its share of overhyped candidates, including Democrats Paul Babbitt (Ariz.), Dario Herrera (Nev.), Billy Richardson (N.C.) and Larry Maggi (Pa.) and Republicans Chuck Blasdel (Ohio), Kevin Raye (Maine), Doug Roulstone (Wash.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.).

This cycle, Republicans were high on Sean Sullivan, former commander of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., who is taking on freshman Rep. Joe Courtney (D) in Connecticut’s 2nd district. When former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) declined a comeback attempt, Republicans thought Sullivan was the next best thing.

But Sullivan had just more than $14,000 on hand in campaign funds through June 2007 and wasn’t showing much of an interest in boosting that total. National Republicans encouraged Sullivan to pick up the pace, but with little success. The Republican showed $127,000 on hand through the end of last year, not nearly enough for a competitive race, particularly against Courtney, who was sitting on more than $1 million.

Republicans also thought they were going to be able to make a rare run at Rep. Bart Stupak (D) in Michigan’s 1st district. State Rep. Tom Casperson (R) got into the Congressional race with a 2002 victory for the state House over the Congressman’s wife already on his résumé. But through the end of the year, Casperson raised a mere $42,000 for his Congressional run and finished 2007 with less than $30,000 on hand. The race against Stupak (who had $417,000 on hand on Dec. 31) was always going to be an uphill battle, but Republicans expected much more from Casperson.

Democrats have seen a number of candidates in Pennsylvania fail to meet initial expectations. Erie County Councilman Kyle Foust (D) was supposedly a top challenger to Rep. Phil English (R) in the 3rd district, but he raised less than $55,000 last year and finished December with $25,000 on hand.

Lake Erie Arboretum Director Kathy Dahlkemper, who was a late entry into the race, also is running for the Democratic nomination. She raised about $88,000, contributed $66,000 of her own money, and had $116,000 on hand on Dec. 31. But she also has a ways to go before she is considered a serious threat to English, who was sitting on $537,000 in campaign funds.

In the 18th district, Democrats had grand plans for knocking off Rep. Tim Murphy (R) with Beth Hafer (D), vice president of Hafer & Associates and daughter of former State Treasurer Barbara Hafer. Not only does the younger Hafer still have to win the Democratic nomination — which is no sure thing — but she raised only $106,000 through the end of the year and had $42,000 on hand on Dec. 31.

In the Chicago suburbs, Democrats had difficulty finding a challenger to Rep. Peter Roskam (R) in Illinois’ 6th district but finally landed on retired Army Col. Jill Morgenthaler (D). The Democrat raised $105,000 (including a $10,000 personal contribution) and had $42,000 on hand through Jan. 16.

Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (D) spent more than $4.5 million in the 6th district in the previous cycle and fell short in the open-seat race. Roskam had raised more than $1 million and had $864,000 on hand through Jan. 16.