Monday, March 06, 2006

Rothenberg Touts His Favorite Candidates So Far

By Stuart Rothenberg

I certainly haven’t yet seen all of this cycle’s allegedly strong House candidates, but the beginning of March seems like a good time to list my favorite candidates so far, including both challengers and seekers of open seats but excluding candidates from the previous cycle who are running again. The group that follows is not presented in any particular order.

Ron Klein (D) is taking on Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida’s 22nd district — one of the 10 or 15 most competitive House races of the cycle. I found the state Senator to be poised and polished, without being too slick. He has already raised more than $1 million and is running in a very competitive district.

Having said that, Shaw is constantly underestimated. I’m not sure why. He has demonstrated over the past 30 years — first as mayor of Fort Lauderdale and then as a Member of Congress — that he is an effective politician who can win in a variety of circumstances and against allegedly strong challengers. Still, Klein conveys a sense of maturity and substance, and that makes him an unusually strong contender in the current environment.

After hearing Democrats talk about Wisconsin candidate John Gard (R), I expected a monster to come into my office. Instead, I encountered an accomplished political veteran who is both personable and politically savvy. He seemed smart, likable and down-to-earth.

The Speaker of the state Assembly, Gard, 42, is the favorite to win the GOP nomination for the seat being vacated by Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.), who’s running for governor. Gard, who has already been endorsed by Green, is also considered the favorite to win the seat in November.

But Gard does face primary opposition from state Rep. Terri McCormick and a competitive general election. His opponents portray him as a political insider with ties to lobbyists and the establishment. But Gard, who entered the state Legislature at 24, is the kind of focused, results-oriented conservative that Democrats will hate if he makes it to Congress.

I wrote about Indiana’s Brad Ellsworth (D) in this space recently, so I don’t need to wax poetic about what a good candidate he is. With a law enforcement background, strong fundraising, a moderate (even conservative) bent and a personal appeal that most hopefuls lack, the Vanderburgh County sheriff has a chance of knocking off Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.).

Republicans have rallied around Illinois state Sen. Peter Roskam (R) in their effort to hold onto the seat of retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R), which is considered politically competitive. Well-spoken and likable, Roskam sounds like a well-versed, mainstream conservative who fits this district well.

Roskam worked on Capitol Hill years ago for both Hyde and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), so he understands Congress and Congressional campaigns. He’s one of those rare politicians who one minute sounds like a policy wonk and then next talks like a strategist and campaign consultant. I found him refreshing for his candor and insight.

In the crowded 1st district race in Iowa to succeed gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Jim Nussle (R), I’ve met three top-tier candidates and each was impressive. Democrats Rick Dickinson and lawyer Bruce Braley both looked and sounded like Members of Congress. I started out wondering whether state Rep. Bill Dix (R) might be over his head given his small-town roots and farm boy persona. But Dix is a powerful committee chairman and a political strategist for his party, and his combination of political savvy and rural, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” charm makes him one of my favorites.

In Colorado’s 7th district, I’ve met two hopefuls who have won spots on my list: former state Rep. Peggy Lamm (D) and state Higher Education Commission Chairman Rick O’Donnell (R). O’Donnell conveys a sense of accomplishment, maturity and common sense. Lamm is, quite simply, hard not to like. After talking with her for 10 minutes, you get the feeling that you’ve known her for years. (At least she treats you that way.) This highly competitive seat is open because Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) is running for governor.

Democrat Dan Seals is running against Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in Illinois and has little or no chance of winning. But if state and national Democrats have any sense, they’ll find a way to use the African-American businessman’s obvious skills and appeal. A graduate of Boston University, he holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He currently works for GE Commercial Finance.

Another young Democrat, Chris Murphy, has a somewhat better shot this fall than Seals does. Though he looks even younger than his 32 years, Murphy is a seven-year veteran of the state Legislature, serves as assistant Majority Leader in the Senate and chairman of the Public Health Committee. Given his electoral track record and personal skills, he looks to have a far better chance of knocking off veteran Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) than I assumed before I interviewed him.

Finally, Sharron Angle (R) of Nevada, isn’t as dynamic as some candidates, but I must admit that I was impressed with her cool confidence and determination, as well as with her understanding of politics. The state Assemblywoman has built her reputation as an opponent of taxes, and she is going to ride that horse are far as it will take her. It may well take her to Capitol Hill, though she is in the middle of a three-way primary for Congress in Nevada’s 3rd district, a seat that Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) is giving up to run for governor.

That’s my list so far. There are still highly touted challengers and open-seat hopefuls I haven’t yet met — and I’m a bit concerned that some of them are being kept away because the hype surrounding them is grossly exaggerated.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 2, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.