After Losing, You Can Go Home Again

Posted January 16, 2004 at 9:48am

When former Sen. Bob Dole failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, the Kansas Republican returned to the Senate with a case of the “what ifs” and a healthy dose of guilt.

Dole said second-guessing critical campaign decisions during the bruising primary battle against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was common, but his responsibility as Minority Leader offered him little time to spend endless hours reliving the campaign.

Still, Dole acknowledged that returning to Congress a failed presidential candidate is not an easy endeavor.

“It takes a while,” Dole said in a recent interview. “You are kind of a little embarrassed you didn’t win and you sort of neglected some of your duties.”

He is not alone. Since 1960, the road to the White House is paved with Members who reached for the brass ring, only to fall short. From the crowded primary field of 1960 when four Senators sought the nomination to Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) brief 2004 bid, at least 44 Members have run for their party’s respective nomination. Only four of them eventually ended up as the nominee, and then-Sen. John Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the only one to be elected president.

More Members will join the club over the next month, perhaps as early as this week, as some candidates realize the odds of winning the Democratic nomination are a long shot at best. Five Members are competing for it and at minimum four will lose — possibly all five, if former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean wins the nomination.

If Dean wins, all of the Members will return to Congress for the rest of the 108th: Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) to the House and Sens. John Edwards (N.C.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) to the Senate.

For at least two Members, it will be a short stopover. Gephardt and Edwards will retire at the end of the year. Graham, too, has announced he will step down at the close of the 108th Congress.

In the short term, the biggest adjustment for the presidential aspirants will be a dramatically reduced campaign schedule. No longer will they have to feverishly crisscross the country to raise campaign dollars and try to convince voters to support them on primary days.

While Members might long for the excitement of the campaign trail and ego-boosting rallies, there are fewer fond memories of the long hours required to run an effective campaign.

“You’re exhausted,” said former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who first ran for president in 1984. “I had been doing that for more than two years, and more often than not it was seven days a week and it was 10 or 12 or 14 hours a day. So you are tired.”

Hart added, “All you want to do is get some sleep or some rest. You are ready for the thing to be over.”

Ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) agreed with Hart that it was a major relief to leave the hectic pace of the campaign trail and noted that returning to familiar ground where friends greet you with open arms made the transition easier.

“It’s like coming home again,” said Kerrey, whose 1992 White House bid faltered in the early primary states after much hope and promise in 1991. Kerrey recalled his colleagues greeting him warmly: “Nice to have you back, full time.”

“The campaign was deflating — coming back to the Senate wasn’t deflating,” Kerrey said. “The Senate becomes a home.”

It didn’t hurt that at the time of his return to the Senate in the spring of 1992 there were more than a handful of his colleagues who had attempted a bid for the White House and failed to even win the nomination. They included Dole, who’d lost two bids, in 1980 and 1988, for the GOP nomination and would eventually run and win the nod in ’96 before losing the general election; then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), who’d pulled out of the ’88 campaign after a bad showing in New York but would eventually be his party’s nominee in 2000; and Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and the late Sen. Paul Simon (Ill.), who both failed to gain the Democratic nod in 1988.

A week after Kerrey’s demise in early March 1992, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) would return to the Senate, himself a defeated contender for the Democratic nomination that eventually went to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Interestingly, Kerrey, who was elected to the chamber in 1988 when Democrats were in the majority, said the 1994 elections and the transition to life in the minority in the early heady days of the 104th Congress were much more difficult to handle than his own failed 1992 campaign.

“It was a much bigger funk after ’94, going into the minority,” he said.

Dole said it took him about “two or three weeks” to settle back into life in the Senate, a job that he described as the “greatest in the world.”

“You have got to be pretty careful when you come back,” Dole said. “You have got to accept you lost.”

Dole did and is credited with helping Republicans take back the Senate majority in the 1994 elections. But he never took his eyes off the prize and eventually retired in 1996 to campaign full time as the GOP nominee against Clinton.

Unlike Dole, who ran multiple times for his party’s presidential nomination, other Members have shelved their White House ambitions in favor of pursuing a legacy in Congress after losing the nomination. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) resurrected his career after his challenge to President Jimmy Carter fell short in 1980; former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) solidified his standing as a leading fiscal conservative after losing the GOP nominating battle in 1996; and a weak showing in 1984 did little to hurt Sen. Fritz Hollings’ (D-S.C.) stature in the chamber.

“Their focus shifted to their Senate careers,” said Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian. “They realized they still could make a valuable contribution in the Senate.”

For some Members, seeking the nomination helped boost their careers. Hart credits his 1984 campaign for helping raise his name recognition as well as causing his colleagues to view him in a different light.

“When I came back to the Senate after the convention in the summer of ’84 I was seen as a different figure,” he said. “I wasn’t seen as a loser. I was a long shot, dark horse, young guy from a Western state who might be the leader of the Democratic Party.”

He added, “If anything my stature in the [Senate] Democrat Caucus and the Senate went up. I recall standing up in the Caucus in the fall of ’84 and everybody was listening to what I had to say.”

In addition to the exhaustion and regret, Members who lose the nominating battle also return with some baggage. During their campaigns, the candidates advanced a ledger of ideas designed to cure the nation’s domestic and foreign policy ills. Now, they find themselves back in the chamber rejected by the primary voters but still empowered to try to institute their agendas.

In many cases the fundraising doesn’t end when the Member leaves the campaign trail. One major pothole for those seeking the nomination now is campaign debt, particularly Kerry. The Massachusetts Senator has taken out a loan in excess of $6 million for his campaign based on personal wealth.

Candidates who fail to gain the nomination and end up with a lot of debt can make their return to Congress particularly agonizing because of the time that must be spent still raising money for a campaign that’s already been lost.

“It felt like it was all I did,” said Kerrey, who estimated he had $1 million in debt to pay off.

Complicating matters, the money to pay off debt in all likelihood must be harvested from people who haven’t already given to the presidential campaign, because a Member’s top financial backers have probably already given the maximum contribution. And, once a candidate is out of the race, it’s not as easy to bring in new contributions from supporters to back an already failed campaign.

Also making the task more difficult is that Members who stick around for a long time after their campaign can’t use money raised for future Congressional campaigns to pay off debt accumulated on the presidential trail.

“I would recommend against going into debt,” Kerrey said. “Other than that, it was terrific to be back home.”