Dems Turn to Ex-Congress Members to Win House

Democrats are turning to a bench of former lawmakers to help win the 25 Republican seats they need to gain the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in November’s election.

Ten former House Democrats who were defeated in 2010 --when Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House -- are trying to reclaim their seats, some running in districts that tilt more Democratic after redistricting.

New York (BEESOH)’s Dan Maffei, Ohio’s Charlie Wilson, Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick and Bill Foster of Illinois are among former lawmakers who Democratic officials see as well-positioned to regain their seats because they have name recognition, campaign organizations and fund raising ability. Having been out of Congress amid the current record-low public approval ratings is also a point in their favor, Kirkpatrick said.

The time is ripe for comeback candidates because “people have been watching a very dysfunctional Congress that can’t get anything done,” said Kirkpatrick, who served one term before losing to Republican Paul Gosar in 2010.

A Feb. 2-5 nationwide Gallup poll of 1,029 adults showed public approval of Congress fell to 10 percent, a record low.

The defeated Democratic incumbents are trying for political comebacks in part because they think their 2010 losses were due to “peculiar circumstances and that those circumstances won’t occur again,” said Bruce Altschuler, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Oswego.

‘Better in the Stable’

Republicans, though, say Democrats’ optimism is misplaced and stress that voters fired these lawmakers two years ago.

“A lot of these are horses that look better in the stable than they run on the track,” said Oklahoma (BSTIOK) Representative Tom Cole, a former chairman of the Republicans’ House campaign effort. “They are people who have already been defeated once.”

A number of Republicans defeated in the past six years tried again and “never made it back,” Cole said. Exceptions to this trend are Steve Chabot of Ohio, who was defeated in 2008, and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, who lost in 2006. Both “picked the right year and came back in 2010,” Cole said.

Republican campaign strategists say ex-incumbents’ name recognition also might work against them and tie them to policies voters don’t favor.

Already Rejected

“The fact that these Democrats have already been rejected by voters is the least of their problems,” Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an e-mail. Their voting records will haunt them, he said.

Former incumbents do have connections and “some residual name ID, but there is usually some political damage as well,” Cole said. “You got defeated for a reason.”

Several of the ex-incumbents said former constituents helped persuade them to try to regain their seats. Kirkpatrick said she decided to run last March after people told her they were “very unhappy with the positions” Gosar had taken. Gosar has since decided to seek re-election in a different district that is more solidly Republican. Kirkpatrick faces a primary challenge from Wenona Benally Baldenegro, an attorney and Democratic activist.

‘Buyer’s Remorse’

Wilson, the Ohio lawmaker who was defeated in 2010 after two terms, said he found “a lot of buyer’s remorse” among voters who elected Republican Bill Johnson. Wilson cited a Jan. 21-22 survey by Public Policy Polling of voters in the district showing that Johnson’s personal favorability rating was 32 percent. The poll was conducted for the House Majority PAC, which seeks to put Democrats back in control of the House.

Cole said Johnson will prove to be a tough opponent for Wilson.

Wilson was included in January in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, which provides fund raising and organizational assistance to recruits. Maffei, who is running in upstate New York, and former Texas Representative Nick Lampson also were designated for help from the campaign group.

New York Representative Steve Israel, who leads House Democrats’ campaign effort, said in an interview that Democratic lawmakers narrowly defeated two years ago “can expect to win in 2012” in what he predicted would be “a much more favorable environment for Democrats around the country.”

Vote on Medicare

Israel said House Republicans will be dogged by a vote to replace Medicare with a health-care voucher system for the elderly as part of the April 2011 House budget blueprint. He also cited last year’s brinkmanship over a threatened government shutdown, raising the federal debt ceiling and extending a payroll tax break for workers.

“People who voted against Dan Maffei didn’t know they were voting for a congresswoman who would vote to end their Medicare,” Israel said. Representative Ann Marie Buerkle defeated Maffei by fewer than 700 votes in 2010. “Now they know, and they will vote for Dan Maffei to come back.”

With congressional redistricting in New York still incomplete, Maffei doesn’t yet know who his Republican opponent will be, Altschuler said. Maffei declined to be interviewed.

Redrawn congressional maps have contributed to retirements of House members on both sides of the aisle. Twenty Democrats and 15 Republicans announced they will retire from the House or seek other office. Democratic retirements include three members of the Blue Dog Coalition from Republican-leaning districts: North Carolina’s Heath Shuler, Arkansas’s Mike Ross and Oklahoma’s Dan Boren.

Tougher for Democrats

Such districts may be tougher for Democrats to retain without an incumbent on the ticket.

Redistricting, by contrast, might help Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy’s comeback attempt in Ohio. First elected to Congress in 2008, Kilroy lost her re-election bid in 2010 to Republican Steve Stivers.

The redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-run Ohio Legislature may paradoxically work in Kilroy’s favor. Lawmakers created a Columbus-area district with “significantly more Democratic voters” than her previous district, she said. She first must beat Democratic primary challengers.

“I was intending to run if there was a district that wasn’t totally rigged against me,” Kilroy said.

Challenges in 2010

In addition to the ex-incumbents’ races, several Democrats who mounted strong, though unsuccessful, challenges in 2010 when Republicans won their House majority are pursuing rematches.

California (BEESCA)’s Ami Bera and New Hampshire’s Ann McLane Kuster are among the repeat challengers who Democratic campaign officials see as being competitive. Bera will again try to oust Republican Representative Dan Lungren in a redrawn Sacramento- area district where Democrats now have an edge in party registration.

Kuster will try to unseat Bass, who voters returned to Congress in 2010 after he was defeated four years earlier when Democrats took control of the House.

Bass said in an interview he was optimistic he would beat Kuster, in part because of his strong ties to the district, which he has represented for a total of 14 years.

“My constituents know me, and I’ve worked hard to deal with issues that are not necessarily national in nature,” Bass said.

Bera, whose rematch against Lungren will occur in a district with about 25,000 fewer Republican voters, said in an interview that he has observed a stronger anti-incumbent sentiment, regardless of party affiliation.

Lungren said in an interview he isn’t concerned that the district has more Democratic voters than before. “Elections are not predetermined by registration,” he said. “They can give you a hint as to what a district might do but they don’t determine it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider in Washington at Jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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