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So You Want to Be a Political Handicapper, Part II

In my last column, I reported on my reactions after recently interviewing five House candidates. Here are my thoughts on the other five, all Democrats, whom I saw during a day of “speed interviewing.”

Ann Kuster (New Hampshire’s 2nd district). Kuster has already emerged as one of the Democrats’ top challengers to a sitting Republican, Rep. Charles Bass. She almost beat Bass in a great Republican year, and the 2012 environment probably can’t be worse than 2010 was for Democrats. Plus, Bass now has more votes that Kuster can use, and she cites “women’s health” and Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget as examples.

Like Iowa’s Christie Vilsack, Kuster has already been “recommended” by EMILY’s List, and, like Vilsack, she seems to prefer finessing controversial issues.

Kuster describes herself as “pro-business, pro-environment, pro-family and pro-jobs,” and during the interview, she talked energetically about a college savings plan she pushed in New Hampshire and a medication program she advocated in the state. But she also talks about the need to “end two wars” and to end tax subsidies for oil companies, gas companies, coal companies and agriculture.

Bass’ district is less conservative than the state’s other Congressional district, and the Republican Congressman, who has traditionally been regarded as more moderate on social issues and the environment than many in his party, will be on the defensive throughout the race. Kuster is clearly a top-tier challenger and a formidable foe.

Jose Hernandez (California’s 10th district). Democratic strategists are drooling at the “story” that Hernandez has to tell. The son of migrant workers from Mexico, the electrical engineer worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for more than a dozen years before being accepted into NASA’s astronaut program. He was the flight engineer on a space shuttle flight during the summer of 2009.

Personable and extremely likable, Hernandez easily connects with people. His personal story is compelling, and he tells it in an appealing way.

But while campaign committees and consultants always love candidates with great stories, many of those candidates ultimately lose, especially when the campaign turns away from biographies and to partisan issues. Unsuccessful Democratic House hopefuls Tammy Duckworth (in Illinois in 2006) and Patty Wetterling (in Minnesota in 2004) are two who come to mind easily. Voters like good stories, but they often look at other things when deciding how to vote.

I didn’t talk with him long enough to get into issues or to see how he will attack Rep. Jeff Denham (R), who will run for re-election in a very competitive district, so it’s impossible for me to handicap this race as completely as I’d like to. But Hernandez’s personal skills and lack of a legislative record make this a race to watch.

Val Demings (Florida’s 8th district). Demings is a former Orlando police chief, and if there is one word to describe her, it would be “intense.” In fact, Demings, an African-American who rose through the police department’s ranks and is making her first run for office, might be the single most intense candidate I have ever interviewed. This could be either good or bad. I’m not sure yet.

Though the state’s new lines haven’t been drawn, Demings says she will run against freshman GOP Rep. Daniel Webster. A conservative former president of the Florida Senate, Webster hasn’t exactly cut a high profile since he was elected.

Like other Democrats, Demings talks about Washington’s gridlock and officeholders forgetting who they are representing, but until she has to answer questions about how she would vote on key issues, it’s hard to know how she will sell with district voters. The shape of the district is still in doubt, so it is also hard to know what kind of an electorate she will be facing.

Pam Gulleson (North Dakota’s at-large). A former state legislator who worked for then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Gulleson looked at the Senate and House races before opting to run for the open at-large district.

Like other Democrats, she stresses the “independent” nature of voters in her state, and she argues that voters are “unhappy with partisanship.” Of course, all of the Democratic candidates I interviewed seem to think that Congressional Republicans are responsible for the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, a view that not all voters may share.

Gulleson clearly understands politics and elections. She has plenty of politics under her belt, so she isn’t likely to get flustered or make a big mistake during a campaign. But North Dakota won’t be favorable territory for President Barack Obama, so she’ll need to get the votes of many who vote Republican for president. The GOP field in the House race isn’t close to being set, so the contest is wide open.

Like other Democrats, Gulleson may be underestimating the problems caused by running with an unpopular president during a poor economy. Just ask former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) about it.

Brendan Mullen (Indiana’s 2nd district). A former kicker on the Army football team, Mullen graduated from West Point, went to Airborne School and Ranger School and served multiple assignments, including in Iraq. Not surprisingly, given that background, he is focused and confident. You get the sense that he views the House race as his next “mission.”

The first-time candidate calls himself a “pro-life, pro-gun moderate Democrat” and a job creator, and he is personable and articulate. He, too, has an interesting story, but he is running in a tough district that Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) is leaving to mount an uphill Senate campaign — a choice that undoubtedly stems from the difficulty Donnelly would have in holding the redrawn seat.

Donnelly won in 2010 only because he ran explicitly against then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama, so Mullen will have some interesting choices about the kind of campaign he will run this cycle. The favorite for the GOP nomination, Jackie Walorski, almost won the seat last time.

Mullen bears watching, if only because he is an attractive candidate. Whether he can win is another story. It’s too early to tell.

These and the other Democrats I wrote about in my last column seem to believe that they can run traditional campaigns against their GOP opponents. But if our politics have become truly “nationalized,” as some believe, the president’s re-election bid may color all downballot races, improving the prospects of some Democrats (running in favorable territory) and damaging the prospects of others.

In 2010, for example, Democratic attacks on Republican candidates often proved ineffective, as voters wanted to send a message about Pelosi, the president and the direction of the country.

Of course, if the president succeeds in demonizing the GOP, and independent voters swing back into the Democratic column, many of the Democrats I just interviewed could find 2012 to be a surprisingly favorable year.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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