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In Just a Week, Stu Finds Five Candidates He Actually Likes

It’s just another week in the life of a handicapper. I interviewed five candidates, and my reactions may surprise some.

Candidate No. 1 is Jim Sullivan, a Democrat running for Congress against Rep. Rob Simmons (R) in Connecticut’s 2nd district. [IMGCAP(1)]

Sullivan, a 37-year-old financial adviser whose head of gray hair makes him look older, served two terms on the Norwich City Council. He also worked as an aide to then-state Senate President (now U.S. Representative) John Larson (D).

A pro-choice Catholic, Sullivan ran for the Democratic nomination two years before pulling out in favor of Joe Courtney, who fell with a thud to Simmons in November.

The district certainly is competitive. Al Gore won it with 54 percent in 2000, and Ralph Nader drew a credible 6 percent as well. It’s difficult territory for any Republican.

Sullivan is a low-key, extremely likable guy. He’s a credible challenger, but not one without some problems. First, he finished March with about $136,000 in the bank and says that’s about where he stands now. He’s not going to beat an incumbent with that kind of cash. His end-of-June Federal Election Commission numbers will determine whether he is truly credible.

Second, I’m skeptical that he can sell his view that Simmons is some kind of right-winger who is in lock-step with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and President Bush, or that Simmons’ CIA background won’t continue to be a huge plus for the Congressman.

Sullivan needs a wave to beat Simmons. Still, it’s a race that shouldn’t be ignored.

Candidate No. 2 is Matt Connealy (D), a farmer who is serving his second term in the Nebraska Legislature. Connealy is the Democratic nominee in Nebraska’s 1st district, left open by GOP Rep. Doug Bereuter’s retirement.

The district is Republican, but the GOP nominated a former Lincoln city councilman, Jeff Fortenberry, known for his conservative views. Establishment Republicans preferred another candidate in the primary, and they may not embrace their nominee.

But while the Democrat has raised more than $300,000 for his bid, he has only about one-third of that total on hand, not what we’d like to see at this point. And the big question for Connealy is whether he can withstand his opponent’s general election attacks, since his legislative record included votes for new taxes.

Still, Connealy has a presence about him. He looks and sounds like a Congressman. And if Fortenberry runs an amateurish campaign (as he did during the primary) or paints himself into a religious right corner, this could be a very interesting contest. People I talk to, however, say that Fortenberry is far more appealing and far stronger than Democrats think.

Candidate No. 3 is yet another Democrat. Lois Murphy is challenging freshman Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent winner over Dan Wofford (D) two years ago in a newly created district.

Murphy, 41, lives in upper-crust Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, graduated from Radcliffe and Harvard Law School, and has served as president of NARAL Pro-Choice Pennsylvania for more than 10 years.

But that profile may give you the wrong impression about Murphy. She knows her campaign nuts and bolts, and I got the distinct feeling she has that relatively rare ability to connect with people of various backgrounds, She has a natural, down-to-earth quality. In other words, Gerlach, who doesn’t have the reputation of raising cash or running great campaigns, is in big, big trouble.

Sure, Murphy is a liberal, and that’s a problem in parts of this district. In addition, since most of the 6th district is in the Philadelphia media market, it will be difficult for the challenger to get the visibility she needs to oust an incumbent. But her fundraising has been good, and Gerlach still has plenty to prove after his 2002 squeaker.

Candidate No. 4 is state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R), who won a runoff for the right to challenge Rep. Chet Edwards (D) in Texas’ 17th district.

Democrats have spent months painting the GOP state legislator as a fire-breathing, knuckle-dragging right-winger whose style resembles that of Attila the Hun. What I saw was an almost 56-year-old mother of two. While she certainly projects a toughness and self-confidence, she also seems thoughtful, politically savvy and reasonable.

Wohlgemuth still needs to heal some primary party wounds, which resulted from her defeat of a more moderate Republican. But she appears to have made a good start. The big question is whether she and her strategists will run a flawless race, which she needs to do if she hopes to beat a smart incumbent.

Edwards is running in a good deal of new territory, and while he has drawn GOP votes in the past, he faces a tougher task and a stronger opponent, this time. Bush drew 68 percent in the redrawn 17th district in 2000, and John Sharp, a veteran Democratic elected official who has shown strength among moderate and conservative Democrats, lost the district in his two last statewide runs.

Candidate No. 5 is Randy Kuhl, a GOP state Senator who hopes to replace retiring Republican Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.).

Kuhl, who has been in the Legislature since his election in 1980, has always run on both the Republican and conservative lines. On virtually all abortion, gun and tax votes, he has been reliably conservative.

But the Monroe County and Rochester-area Republican organization would prefer having a Congressman from its area, and some conservatives are angry at Kuhl for a budget vote he cast in 2003 that resulted in certain new taxes. The Club for Growth has been eyeing the race, and a Rochester-area county legislator is attacking Kuhl from the right.

Kuhl, who has Houghton’s backing, has never had to raise much money, but he is a Grade A candidate with political savvy. And he is a heavy favorite to be a Member of Congress in January.

The bottom line? All five hopefuls were good. In fact, all are good enough to win. Kuhl is the star of the group, but Murphy was the biggest surprise.

I don’t know the last time I liked every candidate I met in a week. Either the candidates are getting better, or I’m getting soft.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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