Monday, February 16, 2009

First Impressions of the ’10 Candidates Making the Rounds

By Stuart Rothenberg

One election cycle blurs into the next one, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that last month I interviewed four candidates who are considering running in 2010.

Republican Adam Kinzinger is looking at Illinois’ 11th district, a seat won in November by freshman Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D), while Michigan Attorney General , Mike Cox (R) is widely mentioned as a possible candidate for governor next year, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is prohibited from running for a third term.

Republican Dean Andal, who lost to Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) in November, seems less certain about running again in 2010 but clearly is keeping his options open. Democrat Bill Hedrick came surprisingly close to pinning a stunning loss on Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), and Hedrick says he already is committed to seeking a rematch.

My first meeting of the year (and the cycle) was with Kinzinger, and to be totally honest, I was dreading it. Another Iraq War veteran running for Congress? Oh, brother. Given the track records of veterans who have nothing else on their résumés, I wasn’t optimistic.

Then I saw Kinzinger. I thought he looked old enough to vote, but I wasn’t sure.

But I shouldn’t have been filled with such dread. Kinzinger may not win a seat in Congress in 2010, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to be kicked to the curb, either.

Kinzinger, 30, is a personable Air Force pilot who was elected to the McLean County Board in 1998 and was re-elected four years later. He resigned from the board during that term when he went on active military duty.

Last cycle, after GOP nominee Tim Baldermann dropped out of the Illinois Congressional race, Kinzinger indicated his interest in replacing Baldermann on the ballot. But party leaders instead chose Marty Ozinga, a multimillionaire businessman whom GOP strategists expected to write a big check to fund his bid. He didn’t, and Halvorson crushed him, 58 percent to 35 percent, in November.

Kinzinger is putting together a campaign team, and he says former Rep. Tom Ewing (R-Ill.) — who represented an adjoining district — is supporting him.

Kinzinger is young, likable and has some political savvy. Of course, he’s a long shot, and a more experienced, well-heeled GOP candidate could eclipse him. But for a first interview, he didn’t do badly.

Cox is a different story. I’d met him before, and I already knew that he was a likable sort who held one of his state’s top elective posts. He’s unquestionably a top-tier hopeful.

Cox is finishing his second term as state attorney general, an office that he first won six years ago when its previous occupant, Granholm, was elected governor. A former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County (Detroit), he faces a potentially crowded multicandidate GOP primary that could include Rep. Pete Hoekstra and Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, among others.

Cox, who more than three years ago admitted he had an extramarital affair, raised money for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) recent presidential bid. He has already retained Public Opinion Strategies’ Neil Newhouse as his pollster.

The conservative Cox definitely looks like a serious contender for the GOP nomination and for the Michigan governorship, given the state’s economic problems and Granholm’s less-than-sterling performance.

Candidate No. 3 was Andal, who drew 45 percent in losing to McNerney in Northern California.

Andal hasn’t decided whether to run again, though it’s clear that he places the blame for his loss on his party. GOP registration in the district shrunk over the past few years, turning a Republican-leaning district into a tossup. Given President Barack Obama’s strength at the top of the ticket last year, Andal got buried.

Andal’s message is clear: The landscape in the district needs to move back toward where it was just a couple of years ago before any Republican will be able to oust McNerney from the seat.

Finally, I met Hedrick, who came within 6,047 votes (and 2 points) of upsetting Calvert. A former classroom teacher who now is president of the local teachers’ association, he spent less than $200,000 to get 48.8 percent of the vote, relying entirely on volunteers and door-to-door grass-roots efforts.

Hedrick is a serious, committed man who is refreshingly candid and displays a surprisingly good understanding of campaigns. He received little or no help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last time, and even potential allies ignored his race. Nobody believed he could defeat Calvert or even get close. That includes me.

The Democrat’s political views on health care, labor union organizing, possible legal action against Bush administration officials for certain policies and other issues aren’t an ideal fit for his district, which still leans Republican even though Obama won it narrowly.

Hedrick is off and running again, and party insiders are, once again, not entirely enthusiastic about his candidacy. That’s understandable given the GOP registration edge in the district, weak fundraising last time and the perception that he came so close only because of the Obama surge.

But Calvert, who was arrested in 1993 for soliciting a prostitute, is a flawed incumbent — he has been under a cloud because of questions about his votes and his real estate investments — and Hedrick or some other Democrat will have two more years to press that case to district voters.

Hedrick remains a long shot, but one who has already surprised observers by getting closer to pulling off a major upset in 2008 than anyone imagined. For that alone, he deserves some respect.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.