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On a Run of Strong Congressional Candidates

I’m not sure whether it’s the summer heat, a side effect of the aging process or simply dumb luck, but I’ve met a string of unusually good Congressional candidates recently.

Not all of them will win — in part because some of them are running against each other — but they are all worth monitoring during this cycle and beyond.

South Carolina businessman Tom Rice (R) has the makings of a strong Member of Congress, and he’s a lock to win in a newly created Horry County-based (Myrtle Beach) district.

An attorney who segued into the commercial real estate business, Rice’s first foray into politics was two years ago, when he ran successfully to become chairman of the Horry County Council. He became involved in local politics in part because of his concerns about the deleterious effects that growing motorcycle rallies could have on the community.

Former Lt. Gov. André Bauer (R), who had the backing of the National Rifle Association, local tea party activists, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, attacked Rice in the GOP runoff as a “moderate,” but Rice won by 12 points.

Rice has refused to sign ATR’s no-tax pledge, but he is a conservative who bridles at the all-or-nothing approach to politics.

“As a tax lawyer, I’ve been involved in thousands of deals, and I’ve never seen one where I got everything that I wanted,” he said in a recent interview.

Sean Patrick Maloney (D) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (he is very ambitious), but he’s an unquestionably strong challenger to freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) in a very competitive district.

A graduate of Georgetown University and the University of Virginia Law School, he started working for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. For most of Clinton’s second term, Maloney worked in a senior position in the White House. After a brief stint in the private sector, he lost an uphill primary bid for New York attorney general.

He eventually served as deputy chief of staff for then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), and he stayed on when David Paterson (D) became governor following Spitzer’s resignation.

Maloney, who is openly gay and moved into the district only this spring, is very political. He ran to the left to win his party’s nomination but is likely to stress his Clinton connection — and benefit from the former president’s endorsement — in the general election.

Voters in North Carolina’s 11th district should consider themselves very lucky. Each party has nominated an excellent candidate in the open-seat contest.

Democrat Hayden Rogers managed Rep. Heath Shuler’s first race for Congress and went on to become the Congressman’s chief of staff.

Rogers is everything Democrats could hope for — bright, personable and well-versed in policy and politics. A graduate of Princeton University (where he played defensive tackle), he’s the ultimate good ol’ boy with a Carolina accent. Unfortunately for him, he is a Democrat in a very Republican district — the most Republican district in the state after redistricting.

Moreover, Rogers’ GOP opponent is Mark Meadows, a real estate developer who has lived in Western North Carolina for 27 years. Conservative, polished and as personable as Rogers, Meadows has appeal to all wings of the GOP. But given his personal style and background, he looks much more like a mainstream businessman than a tea party activist. He also looks very likely to be the district’s next Member of Congress.

While Democrats had their share of problems finding a strong candidate in California’s 26th district — and then had to spend heavily to get her through the top two primary and onto the November ballot — state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley looks to be the real deal.

She has been involved in elective politics for the past 20 years, so it probably isn’t surprising that she is personable and substantive. She starts out in a hole financially, having spent heavily to make the general election. Her GOP opponent, state Sen. Tony Strickland, had more than a 3-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage June 30. Polling in the race is contradictory, and both Brownley and Strickland appear to be more ideological than their constituents. But this should be a good race between two strong candidates.

Republican Susan Brooks is almost certain to succeed retiring Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), and she has the potential to be a star on Capitol Hill.

A former deputy mayor under Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith (R) in the late 1990s, Brooks served for six years as a U.S. attorney. She began her service in that position about one month after 9/11.

After leaving that job, she became senior vice president and general counsel for the state’s community college system.

“I’m not in favor of raising taxes or more regulation, and I want smaller government,” she said after responding that she has not signed ATR’s anti-tax pledge. “I’m not signing any pledge,” she added, noting that she didn’t want to tie her hands before she gets to Capitol Hill.

Brooks is another conservative who wants to make government work rather than merely shut it down.

I was impressed by both candidates in California’s 47th district, based in Long Beach, Orange County.

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D) starts out as the favorite in this Democratic-leaning open-seat contest. A community psychologist and college professor, Lowenthal, 71, is proud of his legislative accomplishments and stresses that he is a problem-solver who doesn’t automatically support his party.

Soft-spoken, serious and thoughtful, he sounds more like a therapist than a politician. What he lacks in pizzazz, he makes up for in earnestness. If he has a weakness, it may well be that he is too confident that voters will reward him for his years working for the voters of Long Beach.

His opponent, Gary DeLong, the lone Republican on the Long Beach City Council, is acknowledged, even by Democrats, to be a formidable nominee and the best candidate Republicans could put up against Lowenthal.

A former telecommunications executive and self-described moderate, DeLong, 52, is pro-abortion rights and supports gay marriage. He also supported the city’s plastic bag ban. Smart, politically astute and somewhat more aggressive than Lowenthal, DeLong gives the GOP an unexpected shot in this district.

Finally, although former San Diego City Council President Scott Peters (D) lost a bid for San Diego city attorney in 2008, he should give Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) a real run for his money in November.

A specialist in environmental law who now serves on the San Diego Port Commission, Peters is a polished politician who knows how to respond to questions and criticisms and demonstrate his knowledge of policy. He won the Democratic nomination by defeating a very liberal former Member of the California Assembly who had the support of progressive groups. A pragmatic liberal, he is the kind of politician who prefers results to posturing, something Washington, D.C., needs.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.