Being a member of Congress used to be a semi-glamorous affair, a way for the high-minded but ambitious to cut their teeth in government before going on to bigger and better things. J.F.K., L.B.J., Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush all spent time in the lower chamber before moving on to higher office and eventually the White House.
But fast-forward to the 2014 mid-term elections and a House career is looking more like a roadblock than a launching pad as a slew of House members struggle to launch their campaigns for Senate or governor. For a job that just 2% of Americans say is filled by people who are “very honest and ethical,” the task of convincing voters at home that they’re not part of the problem in Washington is an uphill climb.
“It depends on the member, the record, and what the House member does to prepare to launch a campaign for Senate,” said Ron Bonjean, a former top aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “If you’re purely preparing for a primary and you’re not thinking about how you are going to move to the middle, and you’re not thinking about how to create a legislative legacy you can be proud of, that’s going to be a problem.”
In all, 15 members of the House are running for Senate or a governor’s mansion (11 Republicans and four Democrats), and a majority of those are trailing in their contests.
In Oklahoma, conservative Rep. James Lankford began as the presumed front-runner in the GOP primary to replace Sen. Tom Coburn, until former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon picked up several high-profile conservative endorsements, including that of Sen. Ted Cruz, that pegged the far-right Lankford as insufficiently conservative. Shannon led by 10 points in a recent poll.
In Pennsylvania, a Morning Call poll showed Democratic Rep. Allison Schwartz trailing her better funded primary opponent, Tom Wolf, by 13 points in the race for Pennsylvania governor.
Further south in Georgia, three congressmen are running in the crowded Senate primary, but the latest Insider Advantage poll shows Reps. Jack Kingston, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey clumped in third, fourth and fifth places respectively, trailing former Reebok CEO David Perdue, who has never held office at all. Looking to use the congressmen’s day jobs against them, Perdue has been running an ad for months portraying the three as screaming, crying babies.
While each of the Senate races has its own dynamics, some of the biggest challenges that the House members are consistently facing come as a result of actions both parties have taken in the last 10 years to amass more power for themselves. Gerrymandered congressional districts, the elimination of earmarks, and a preference for “message votes” over legislative compromise may make for great attack ads in an election cycle, but they have left individual members with few tangible achievements to claim for their districts.
“The positions that serve House Republicans well in overwhelmingly Republican districts hurt them when they’re trying to run statewide,” said Doug Thornell, a former aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Holding extreme views, whether it’s on immigration or shutting down the government or fiscal policy, that works well for them in districts that are 70% or 80% Republican, but when they branch out to try to run statewide, it’s really hard.”
Thornell said it seems to be even more difficult for the House members of either party running for governor.
“You have to always run as a Washington outsider, rather than being part of the institution.”
“That’s a tough sell to say, ‘I’ve got the qualities that suit a chief executive,’ when people see the dysfunction in Washington,” Thornell said. “People are upset by it and frustrated by it. They certainly don’t want to bring it back to their state.”
Thornell and Bonjean both said skillful House members can sidestep the current pitfalls of the congressional tag and move on successfully, but it’s not easy to do.
“You have to always run as a Washington outsider, rather than being part of the institution,” Bonjean said. “No longer if you go to a dinner and you sit across from business people will they be awestruck that you’re a member of the House of Representatives.”
To Bonjean’s point, some House members are working so hard to run as outsiders that it is difficult to know they are even in Congress by watching their campaigns.
In Georgia, Jack Kingston’s television ads make repeated reference to his old family station wagon, but never mention his 20 years in Congress. Gingrey’s website refers to him only as “Phil Gingrey, M.D.,” while Broun’s calls him “Paul Broun, M.D.”—no mention of “Congressman” from those men or Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is running 18 points behind Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. Cassidy’s bio details his time as a doctor, a Sunday school teacher and volunteer and philanthropist, but never specifically says he is a member of Congress.
While some House members are struggling mightily, others are keeping their races at at least a dead heat. Rep. Gary Peters is in toss-up with Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in the Michigan Senate race, while Rep. Cory Garner is giving Sen. Tom Udall a strong challenge in Colorado.
Jennifer Duffy, the Senate editor of the Cook Political Report, said that despite the chamber’s unpopularity, being a member of Congress still has advantages.
“I think overall it’s a net positive because you’ve run and won a big race, you know how to fundraise, theoretically you know what you’re doing,” Duffy said.
But she added that the experience comes at a price, including a voting record to attack and the association with an institution that has lost not just its popular appeal, but much of its power.
“Just being a member of Congress, I don’t care what party you’re in, has not been a net positive for most people lately,” she said. “This too shall pass. Does it pass in this decade? Probably not.”