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Challenges Await Returning Hopefuls

Matt Salmon spent about $135,000 in the lead-up to winning a 1994 GOP primary for an Arizona House seat. Last month, Salmon, who is seeking a return to Congress 12 years after he left, reported spending almost $800,000 so far this cycle.

Salmon’s financial advantage helped him win a Republican primary in Arizona’s 5th district, and he is heavily favored to join the next Congress.

The cost of campaigns – along with the increased time devoted to fundraising – is among the biggest changes politicians who have been away from the trail for more than a decade encounter. Salmon called it “sticker shock.”

Although ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey’s (D) comeback Senate bid in Nebraska has garnered the most press, he and Salmon are among a handful of former Members who are seeking a return to political life after an extended hiatus. The others include former Montana Rep. Rick Hill (R), former Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan (D) and former Texas Rep. Steve Stockman (R). Hill is running for governor in Montana, while the rest hope to return to Congress.  

They are encountering a lot of challenges as they discover just how much the terrain has changed.  

“My days are a lot longer this campaign,” Salmon said in August about his bid to return to Congress. “I thought I was working hard last time. It’s just relentless.”

The transition has not been easy for everyone. The two most difficult challenges of the modern campaign are fundraising and adjusting to the fast pace and perils of technology.  

“Now it’s click, send, and it’s going to be news in a half hour,” said one Republican strategist who has been involved in campaigns for almost two decades.

Video tracking of candidates has also become commonplace in recent cycles – since former Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) “macaca” moment in 2006 – and is a big potential pitfall for politicians not accustomed to having their every word recorded.  

For most of the former Members, the 1990s seem like a sleepy era. Fax machines were the primary means of dispersing and receiving information, and mobile technology was in its infancy.  

“Everybody was carrying those stupid bricks around,” Salmon said, referring to the cellphones that were prevalent during his first campaign in 1994.

Each of these candidates has also ventured into the world of social media, but none has exactly lit the Internet grass roots on fire.

Still, each embraces the new way of doing things, updating Twitter and Facebook with endorsement news, photos from the trail and the occasional barb.

In fact, social media is one of the few places anyone can find Stockman. To say his campaign this year was mysterious is an understatement. He was rarely seen on the trail, and his campaign refused to respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Stockman was swept in during the GOP wave of 1994 and served just one term before losing re-election in 1996.  

In the years since, Stockman has attempted to return to elected office but most of his bids have been disorganized.

“I don’t know how the hell he won,” said one Texas GOP strategist familiar with the 2012 primary and runoff. “It’s just weird.”

But others say they do know. Stockman ran one of the most offbeat – and nastiest – campaigns of the entire cycle. His success has been widely attributed to an odd tactic he used in his previous Congressional races in 1994 and 1996.

He created tabloid-like mailers that completely tarred his rival, financial adviser Stephen Takach. Local media and the Takach campaign took issue with the honesty of the charges he made. But it worked, and he pulled out a win in the July runoff.

Like Stockman, Salmon came to Congress during the 1994 Republican revolution, and his toughest race was also his first  primary. Salmon didn’t seek re-
election in 2000 in order to honor a term-limit pledge. He ran and lost a race for Arizona governor in 2002.

“It’s a much different world,” he said about the changes in campaign technology during the past decade. “Your thoughts are out there within a nanosecond. That’s quite a bit different.”  

But the tone of this year’s primary against former Arizona Speaker Kirk Adams also was a change from the past.

“This is the nastiest race I’ve ever been in my life,” he noted.

While Salmon and Stockman were part of the 1994 Republican revolution, Nolan was part of a different distinct wave. He was a 1974 “Watergate Baby” as part of the class of Democratic Members who came to Congress in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s resignation.  

Nolan also won a difficult primary this year as part of his comeback effort. He defeated former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, who had the backing of EMILY’s List and President Bill Clinton.

But Nolan’s state ties ran deep, and most people cite his Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement as the reason he was able to become the party nominee.

His outlook this November is more precarious than that of Salmon and Stockman, both of whom are sure bets in safe districts. Nolan is challenging freshman GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack in Minnesota’s 8th district, which is evenly split territory.

Early Democratic polls show Nolan with a small lead over Cravaack. Republicans have already mined Nolan’s Congressional record and are quick to note that the world has changed since Nolan left politics.

“Campaigns back then and now are totally different animals,” one national Republican strategist said. “I don’t know if when he got into the race he was aware of how different they are or how difficult this is going to be. Things are a lot different now than in ’78, when he last ran.”

But Nolan’s backers remain undeterred in his ability to withstand the rigors and dangers of a modern campaign.

“Having the roots in the district that Nolan has is something that transcends time and Twitter,” state Democratic Party spokeswoman Megan Jacobs said.  

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said as long as a Member has the right motivations for seeking a return to public life, adjusting to modern campaigning isn’t that painful.

Coats knows something about returning to the campaign trail after an extended absence. He retired from the Senate in 1998 but then mounted a comeback bid in 2010 and won the same Senate seat he had vacated 12 years earlier.

“If your motivation for coming back is just to have the title or just to be here, all the sacrifice, all you have to go through, it ain’t worth it,” Coats said Tuesday. “If your motivation is because you are so concerned about the future of this country relative to our deficit and you want to be a part of making a difference, then it’s worth every sacrifice.”