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The Real Reasons Recruits Don’t Run

Recchia is running in New York's 11th District. He cut his first congressional bid short in 2008 after his wife was the victim of an attack. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Recchia is running in New York's 11th District. He cut his first congressional bid short in 2008 after his wife was the victim of an attack. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

I hate candidate recruitment stories.

More specifically, I hate stories that seem to blame the party campaign committees for their inability to coerce candidates to run.

In reality, there are so many factors that the committees cannot control that it’s simply unfair to hold them responsible for every alleged recruiting “failure.” Until party strategists obtain the abilities to heal the sick and cause children to age more rapidly, there is no amount of polling or promises that will get some potential recruits to run for Congress.

Florida state Rep. Kathleen Peters came up short in last week’s Republican primary in Florida’s 13th District, but most people are probably unaware of what she was going through personally during her bid.

According to a New Year’s Day story in the Tampa Bay Tribune, Peters’ 84-year-old father has Parkinson’s disease and she’s been living in his house and taking care of him since July. She’s also the mother of four boys and grandmother of four more boys. That might have been enough to keep many potential candidates on the sidelines, but Peters decided to take on the challenge of the special election.

During the heat of the campaign, just days before Christmas, her brother died. He had battled throat cancer. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Peters made funeral arrangements from 1,200 miles away and was editing his obituary in a pause on the trail.

When covering campaigns from the Beltway, I think it’s easy to forget that candidates and potential recruits are real people too.

For example, former New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia is challenging GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm in New York’s 11th District. But this isn’t Recchia’s first bid for Congress. The Democrat ran during the 2008 cycle against Rep. Vito Fossella and raised $350,000. But when his wife was brutally attacked on St. Patrick’s Day, Recchia suspended his campaign and eventually dropped out of the race.

I asked party strategists on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Hill for specific examples and life circumstances of people they tried (and failed) to recruit this cycle. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

  • Potential candidate’s father has Alzheimer’s and decided to move in with her.
  • Potential candidate’s wife “wasn’t up to it.”
  • Potential candidate has young children and she didn’t want to be away from them so often.
  • Potential candidate’s wife is a two-time breast cancer survivor whose health didn’t allow the margin for a top-tier race.

Other potential candidates passed for financial reasons. One woman was in the middle of selling her business and would have sacrificed millions of dollars for a one-year stint on the campaign trail with no guarantee of victory. Similarly, another candidate was in the middle of complicated financial transactions. Yet another candidate couldn’t pass up the cushy pension in his current position.

Along the same lines, recruits pass for professional reasons. Democratic strategists courted Wayne State University interim law school Dean Jocelyn Benson to run in Michigan’s 11th District. But after a third-year law student at the school was murdered, Benson decided to forgo a bid.

Other potential candidates this cycle passed for political reasons. One incumbent officeholder didn’t want to risk the chairmanship of a committee. Another recruit had one loss already and wasn’t ready to risk another. A third simply wasn’t convinced he could win. That may seem like a party committee’s fault, but sometimes potential candidates figure out reality before putting their life on hold to run.

And sometimes the potential candidates just don’t want to put in the time necessary to win a competitive race. ”It was going to be harder than he thought,”  one party strategist said about someone who didn’t get into a race. “He didn’t want to put in the call time.”

These are just some of the reasons why you won’t see The Rothenberg Political Report hammer the party committees for “recruitment failures.” Sure, it’s up to party strategists to get good candidates into key races, and there certainly are instances where the committees have wooed candidates into contests even though those candidates dismissed the initial pursuit. But in the end, there is only so much within the committees’ control.

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