Track Record of Ex-Member Comebacks Isn’t Great

Posted January 15, 2010 at 6:36pm

House GOP leaders can often find themselves in a difficult and uncomfortable position when their ex-colleagues decide to run for Congress again.

And in the past couple weeks, several former Republican Members defeated in recent cycles have announced bids for their old seats or in nearby districts. Former Reps. Richard Pombo (Calif.) and Mike Sodrel (Ind.) have launched campaigns, and former Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Bill Sali (Idaho) will likely run for their old seats as well.

And while the National Republican Congressional Committee is encouraged by several of the former Members who are making a comeback this cycle, party officials are far from excited about other recently defeated Members running again.

It’s hardly a secret that Sali probably tops the party’s list of unwanted comeback campaigns. Still, it’s often difficult for the national party to weigh in.

“Short of getting involved in primaries, it’s very difficult for them,— said one GOP consultant who has worked with a couple ex-Member candidates. “Sometimes a national party committee getting involved in local primaries is like playing with dynamite. I think the best strategy in those scenarios is to cross your fingers and pray, and hope the people of Idaho make the right decision.—

The NRCC is excited about the candidacies of former Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.), Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Steve Pearce (N.M.) in their former districts. Chabot and Pearce cleared the field by announcing their candidacies early on in the cycle, and leadership has assured Bass ­— who has a primary with 2008 GOP nominee Jennifer Horn — that he will regain his committee standing if he wins.

The NRCC is also encouraged by Fitzpatrick’s likely candidacy, although officials warn that his former district, currently held by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), will be difficult for any Republican to win.

While House Republicans were initially hesitant about former Rep. Tim Walberg’s (Mich.) bid to win back his old seat, a committee official stressed that early polling was encouraging for his prospects.

National Republicans, however, are not pleased with Sodrel’s decision to challenge Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) in what would be their fifth matchup if he wins the GOP primary. Sodrel lost the 2008 race by 20 points. Sali’s prospective candidacy is also troublesome: The one-term Congressman ran a notably weak and poorly funded campaign in 2008 and lost his seat to now-Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) even as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the district with 62 percent at the top of the ticket.

In both the cases of Sodrel and Sali, the NRCC had already been working with GOP candidates who had been running for several months. Veteran Vaughn Ward (R), running in Idaho, has achieved “Contender— status in the NRCC’s “Young Guns— program, while attorney Todd Young, running in Indiana, is at the “On the Radar— level in the three-tiered program.

Young said in a phone interview that the NRCC has been supportive of his candidacy, both before and after Sodrel’s announcement this week.

“They’re just looking for the candidate that they believe can win,— Young said. “And in this political atmosphere, which is very much an anti-incumbent and anti-Washington atmosphere … I don’t believe you can defeat an incumbent with a defeated incumbent.—

Sodrel did not return a call for comment.

But even if Sodrel or other former Members do not have the support of House leadership, they often have the support of their former colleagues.

Bass boasted that his exploratory committee has received donations from a “significant number— of his former colleagues, including Republicans in leadership and in the Senate, and NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) hosted a fundraiser for him. He said that he has not asked for the NRCC’s endorsement and has not had any comprehensive discussions with any of the committee’s staff.

“I haven’t asked for it either, although I’m not that close to that part of it,— Bass said. “I might be a Young Gun. I don’t know.—

Horn, who is also running for the GOP nomination in New Hampshire’s 2nd district, said the committee has also reached out to her, but it has yet to have an official meeting about her bid. She said she’s not surprised, however, if Bass’ former colleagues want to support him.

“Charlie’s been in politics for 30 years,— Horn said. “When a Washington insider runs for office and gets endorsed by Washington insiders, that’s no surprise.—

When Pombo announced he was running for retiring Rep. George Radanovich’s (R-Calif.) seat, NRCC Recruitment Chairman Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) had already endorsed a state Senator running for the seat. McCarthy switched his endorsement to Pombo instead, but the NRCC is staying neutral in that primary.

The NRCC does not have an official policy on endorsing candidates in primaries, even when they involve former Members. The GOP committee, however, has a long-standing policy to support all incumbents running for re-election.

“Former House Republican Members bring experience and built-in organizations to their races, but they will still have to meet the rigorous goals and benchmarks set forth by the Young Guns program,— NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “These candidates have great shots at reclaiming their seats, and it’s the reason why the NRCC will continue to recognize their efforts at building great campaigns.—

But if history is any indication, former Members who run again do not have a high success rate — even though the trend has become increasingly frequent over the past four cycles.

In 2008, eight former Members — six Republicans, two Democrats — ran for the House, and all of them lost their bids. In 2006, 10 former Members ran again and four of them won their bids. In 2004, four former Members ran and two of them won. In 2002, eight former Members ran for Congress and only one, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), won.

There are, however, a handful of notable former Members who have successfully run for their old seat after a defeat. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) won his first term in 1986, lost his seat two years later, then ran again in 1990 and has served in the House ever since. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) was defeated for re-election in 2000 but came back in a special election in 2006 to win a seat in Congress. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) was defeated in 1994 but came back to win in 1996.

Amanda Allen contributed to this report.