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Uphill Climb for Candidates Challenging Leaders

With Halloween just passed, one could be forgiven for thinking the video of a deranged-looking lady surrounded by Latin-speaking zombies sacrificing a lamb in a cavernous lair is a spooky meme.

But the video released early last month is actually a Web ad for John Dennis (R) lampooning his opponent in California’s new 12th district: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D). The ad was cut by Chris Burgard, the mind behind then-
presidential candidate Herman Cain’s infamous “Smoking” spot, and it has a simple message: Dennis is no sacrificial candidate.

The libertarian businessman, who has been endorsed by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), saves the lamb from a knife-wielding zombie in the video, proclaiming, “She is not a sacrificial lamb, and neither am I.”

“It’s not that subtle,” Dennis said in an interview, but it might make a few people pay attention. “One thing I’m running into in San Francisco is no one will listen. It’s like everyone’s a zombie.”

That experience is not Dennis’ alone. He is one of a few candidates challenging the House’s top leaders this year, trying to turn their influence into a weakness by charging that their leadership responsibilities make them neglect their constituents.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have been subjected to the same charge. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), meanwhile, escaped a general election challenge and handily vanquished a primary opponent earlier this year.

Cantor’s Democratic foil, lawyer Wayne Powell, is running in the GOP-heavy district with the slogan: “A Democrat who just might be your kind of Republican.” In a TV ad, he knocks on a door asking for votes. A potential voter warms to his ideas before finding out he is a Democrat and slamming the door on him.

“Some people don’t even want to like me,” Powell said in a phone interview last week on the way to an “Oh, Cantor, Where Art Though?” rally featuring bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. “Then, of course they realize they have a man who’s in Congress who’s never there.”

Like Dennis’ zombie video, Powell’s campaign lacks no amount of hyperbole. That’s a prerequisite when his strategist is noted sharp-tongued operative Dave “Mudcat” Saunders.

“What he does is represent all the greediest among us and his corporate moguls and his sugar daddies,” Powell said of Cantor. “All this makes him look the arrogant, self centered, power-hungry person that he is in Congress.”

That kind of talk, Cantor spokesman Ray Allen said, is not going over well in the district.

“This is not a district where they want to see their leaders in cussing matches and flailing their arms about,” he said.

Still, no amount of rhetoric can obscure the fact that the challengers face an uphill climb. None are expected to win, and in all cases, the districts, name identification and money advantage heavily favor the incumbents.

Dennis knows that all too well. In his 2010 bid against Pelosi, he raised almost $2.5 million, only to come away with a little more than 15 percent of the vote — and that was in a wave election that widely favored Republicans. Now, he has less than $50,000 in cash on hand to Pelosi’s more than $3 million.

“I would never say I’m not running to win,” Dennis said. “But at the same time, there’s a didactic satisfaction in running and hopefully getting people … to maybe look at politics and the nature of government in a different way.”

He is hoping his focus on civil liberties will help peel off a few more Democrats.

Powell, on the other hand, is in it to win. Cantor agreed to debate him, a departure from last cycle when a candidate wearing a chicken suit tailed the Republican accusing him of being too scared to debate.

In the debate, Powell ferociously attacked the Majority Leader on a range of issues, from veterans health funding cuts to lack of bipartisanship. He has raised close to $700,000 this cycle, but Cantor has more than three times that amount in cash on hand.

Hoyer’s challenger, Maryland state House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell (R), is also bullish about his chances. As a seasoned politician, he said he does not have the name-recognition hurdle to overcome.

“Was Scott Brown a sacrificial candidate for Teddy Kennedy’s seat?” he asked of the 2010 Massachusetts Senate upset. “People can get myopic, they can write these districts off on election night, but there’s going to be upsets, and we’re going to be one of them.”

His chances are slim in the heavily blue district, but he said ballot initiatives on gay marriage and immigration will help turn out more Republicans than usual.

O’Donnell estimates that to win he would have to secure 90 percent of the Republican vote, 60 percent of undecided voters and 30 percent of Democrats.

But with less than $130,000 raised, he does not have the money to reach everyone. Hoyer has more than 20 times that amount on hand.

“I have been proud to represent the Fifth District for over thirty years in Congress,” Hoyer said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to do so.”

McCarthy is facing his first challenge since winning the seat of his former boss, Rep. Bill Thomas (R), in 2006. He debated his opponent, former CBS journalist Terry Phillips, an Independent. Phillips also said name recognition is not a problem because he hosted a radio show in the district for more than 5 years.

Phillips faces the starkest money disadvantage. With mere thousands in the bank, he faces a multimillion-dollar McCarthy war chest. But he is at least making the lawmaker spend some of that money at home.

“It was never my intention to be a candidate, but everyone said, no one ever runs against this guy,” Phillips said. “This is not just a token race; I’m convinced we will do extremely well on Election Day.”

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