Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Crop of House Candidates Worth Taking a Look At

By Stuart Rothenberg

There is relatively little attention being paid to this year’s fight for the House of Representatives, since Republicans have no chance retaking the chamber in November.

Even more important, most reporters and observers are hypnotized by the fascinating presidential race, and those who care about Congress seem more interested in whether Democrats can gain nine Senate seats and true control of the chamber.

But while they aren’t the focus of the nation’s attention, hundreds of men and women are once again running for Congress, and there are plenty of good ones in the crowd. I haven’t met all of the people receiving positive buzz from national Democratic and Republican strategists, but I have met some. Here’s a quick rundown of the few candidates who have impressed me.

State Rep. Steve Driehaus is challenging Republican Rep. Steve Chabot in Ohio’s 1st district, which includes Cincinnati’s West Side, as well as suburban areas north and west of the city.

The 41-year-old hopeful calls himself a “raging moderate.” He is pro-life (and has been endorsed by right-to-life groups in the past) but supports embryonic stem-cell research. He voted for Ohio’s Defense of Marriage Act but opposes a federal Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, saying it’s unnecessary. And he opposes “artificial timelines” on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, but he believes those forces should be withdrawn.

Driehaus is a political animal. Since he comes from the white, Catholic, middle-class part of the district and should benefit from the district’s considerable African-American population, the challenger should give Chabot a run for his money. But don’t give this seat to the Democrats just yet. Chabot is a survivor.

Ethan Berkowitz, 45, is the former Alaska House Minority Leader. He was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006 when gubernatorial nominee Tony Knowles (D) went down to defeat, and now he is running for his state’s lone House seat.

A graduate of Harvard with an M.A. from Cambridge, Berkowitz is thoughtful and likable. He is significantly more liberal (he says “progressive”) than most Alaskans on social issues. He is pro-choice and opposed a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that passed by a 2-1 margin.

But Berkowitz is worth watching because the state GOP has plenty of headaches, and Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young are both under investigation. Young now faces a serious primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (R). The chaos could help Berkowitz, who must be hoping that a bloodied Young survives to the general election.

I’m told that the ladies think that New Mexico’s 1st district Democratic hopeful Martin Heinrich is good-looking. All I know is that he seems pretty down to earth, is putting together a good campaign and has the kind of background that should be appealing to New Mexico voters.

A former Albuquerque city councilor and chairman of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, he has extensive background in environmental issues, as well as some experience in campaigns. He describes himself as “a big Second Amendment guy” and says he supports capital punishment.

Heinrich, 36, faces both a primary and a competitive general election, likely against Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White (R), but he is worth watching.

If you like your candidates young, you’ll find Illinois state Rep. Aaron Schock (R), 26, more than interesting. He was elected to the Peoria school board in 2001, even before he graduated from Bradley University.

In 2004, Schock knocked off an incumbent Democratic state legislator in a Democratic district, and he turned back a major challenge two years later. A conservative who says he focuses on constituent services, Schock is the GOP nominee for retiring Rep. Ray LaHood’s (R) open seat.

The clean-cut hopeful looks like the president of a College Republicans chapter (and acts far older than his years), and he sounded well-versed on most matters. If you can be a seasoned political pro at 26, Schock is. It’s a bit scary, actually.

The fact that Brett Guthrie (R) made it on the ballot this year is evidence enough of his political savvy.

The three-term Kentucky state Senator had an inkling that Rep. Ron Lewis (R) might retire, so he waited and watched, submitting his filing papers at the deadline, moments after Lewis withdrew his and the Congressman’s aide filed to run for the open seat.

Guthrie, 43, is likely to face state Sen. David Boswell (D). The Republican, who graduated from West Point and holds an M.A. from Yale, is personal and politically astute, and he’ll be a formidable candidate in the open seat.

Finally, Anne Northup (R), the five-term Kentucky Congresswoman who was swept from office in the 2006 anti-Republican wave, is seeking her old House seat.

Northup, who lost an ill-advised gubernatorial primary last year, has a history of running excellent campaigns, but she was always at risk because of the marginal nature of her Louisville-area district. She wasn’t going to run this time until the likely GOP nominee was called to active military duty.

The former Congresswoman is smart, politically astute and knowledgeable about her district. She also brought home the bacon while in Congress. It won’t be easy for her to dislodge freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D), and fundraising is a huge question mark for her. But Northup has been through a great deal, including the death in July 2006 of one of her adopted children, and there is no one with greater inner strength.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 31, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.