‘Retread’ strategy: Why Congress next year could be full of losers

Both parties are tying success to candidates who ran before and lost

Voters in many districts around the country may notice the familiar names of candidates who ran in the last cycle and lost.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Voters in many districts around the country may notice the familiar names of candidates who ran in the last cycle and lost. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 9, 2020 at 5:30am

The votes haven’t even been counted yet, but one thing is certain: The next Congress is going to be filled with losers. Both parties are hinging their majority dreams on candidates who have recently lost races, many of them just two years ago for the very office they are seeking in 2020.

Of course, how party strategists talk about a previous loss depends on whether the candidate is in their party or not. If a candidate is from the other party, he or she is a retread or has-been who was rejected by voters. If the candidate is from the same party, he or she was a strong candidate who was a victim of outside circumstances, who learned from their previous race and just needs a little boost to get over the top.

“Minnesotans know retread candidate Dan Feehan would be nothing but a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats’ socialist agenda and will reject him in November,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in August. “I look forward to continue working with Jim Hagedorn in Congress.” Somehow, the press release left out Hagedorn’s three previous losses for the House in 2010, 2014, and 2016 before finally getting elected to the 1st District in 2018.

That’s not the only example.

“House Democrats have been saying for years that they’re going to flip Alaska’s congressional seat,” reads an August 2020 memo from the NRCC. “It has yet to happen, and it’s definitely not going to happen with Democrats’ retread candidate Alyse Galvin running again.”

Without question, Galvin lost to GOP Rep. Don Young by 6 points in 2018. But not only was Young a loser himself before getting elected to Congress (he finished 10th in a race for the Alaska state House in 1964), but Republicans nominated 14 candidates this cycle who previously lost races.

Similar to Galvin, eight of those Republicans lost races two years ago for the same seats they’re seeking this cycle. That field includes David Valadao (California’s 21st District), Karen Handel (Georgia’s 6th), David Young (Iowa’s 3rd), Yvette Herrell (New Mexico’s 2nd), Claudia Tenney (New York’s 22nd), Scott Taylor (Virginia’s 2nd), Tiffany Shedd (Arizona’s 1st) and Young Kim (California’s 39th). 

Six more 2020 House GOP nominees in competitive races have losses on their résumés. Nicole Malliotakis (New York’s 11th) lost a 2017 race for mayor of New York City. Michelle Fischbach (Minnesota’s 7th) lost a race for lieutenant governor. Nancy Mace (South Carolina’s 1st) lost a 2014 primary challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham. Tom Kean Jr. (New Jersey’s 7th) lost races for the House in 2000 and Senate in 2006. And Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa’s 2nd) has lost three previous races for Congress. 

Two-loser race in Montana

This year’s race for Montana’s at-large district features two losers. Republican Matt Rosendale lost a 2014 primary for the same seat and a 2018 race for Senate. Democratic nominee Kathleen Williams lost the 2018 election by 5 points to GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte, who is running for governor. 

Republicans aren’t the only ones trying to dismiss candidates who have lost previously. 

“Career Politician Karen Handel has committed herself to a campaign of voter suppression — this retread candidate praises leaders in her party who regularly take steps to disenfranchise communities of color,” according to a tweet from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in June.

Williams and Galvin are just two of 20 Democratic nominees in competitive House races who have lost elections previously. They are also two of the 15 Democrats who lost races just two years ago. The others include Kara Eastman (Nebraska’s 2nd District), Betsy Dirksen Londrigan (Illinois’ 13th), Dana Balter (New Yorks’ 24th), Ammar Campa-Najjar (California’s 50th), Kathy Manning (North Carolina’s 6th), Carolyn Long (Washington’s 3rd), Carolyn Bourdeaux (Georgia’s 7th), Dan Feehan (Minnesota’s 1st), Hiral Tipirneni (Arizona’s 6th) and four Democrats in Texas — Mike Siegel (10th), Sri Preston Kulkarni (22nd), Gina Ortiz Jones (23rd) and Julie Oliver (25th). 

Five more 2020 House Democratic nominees have losses on their résumés. Wendy Davis (Texas’ 21st) lost a high-profile race for governor in 2014. Christina Hale (Indiana’s 5th) lost a race for lieutenant governor. Joyce Elliott (Arkansas’ 2nd) lost a race for Congress a decade ago. Deborah Ross (North Carolina’s 2nd) lost a race for Senate in 2016. And Christy Smith lost a special election for California’s 25th District less than four months ago.  

Asset or liability?

So is a previous loss an asset or a liability? The answer is: It depends. Sometimes voters have indeed made up their minds about a candidate’s appeal or performance in office. In other examples, the candidate just needed a change of circumstances or political environment, or just time, to bolster their name profile. Illinois Democrat Marie Newman and Missouri Democrat Cori Bush knocked off incumbents in primaries this year after losing races to the same people in the same districts in 2018. 

Even getting defeated for reelection doesn’t necessarily mean voters have issued their final verdict on an incumbent. Ohio Republican Steve Chabot survived the 2006 Democratic wave, lost reelection in 2008 and won again two years later against the same candidate who had defeated him. Chabot faces another difficult race in the 1st District this fall. 

There are higher-profile examples of losers moving on to bigger things. Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama lost a 2000 Democratic primary challenge to Rep. Bobby L. Rush, was then elected to the Senate in 2004 and president of the United States in 2008. 

House losses a steppingstone to Senate?

Party strategists focused on the Senate are relying on losers too. 

Iowa Democrat Theresa Greenfield ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2018 (she dropped out before the primary). Cal Cunningham lost a Senate primary in North Carolina in 2010. Amy McGrath (Kentucky) and MJ Hegar (Texas) lost House races in 2018. Jon Ossoff lost a high-profile 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th District. And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper finished just short of getting elected president this year. 

Republicans would dramatically improve their chances of holding the Senate if Martha McSally wins in Arizona. It wouldn’t be a reelection because she lost the election for the state’s other seat in 2018 and was subsequently appointed to the one she currently holds. 

It is unlikely that all of these candidates will win. Either Republicans or Democrats will have a big night, and the party that does will do so by riding on the backs of losers. For Democrats, that could go all the way to the top if two-time presidential loser Joe Biden can capture the White House.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an election analyst for CQ Roll Call.