Thad McCotter, 2012's Invisible Candidate

Thad McCotter is so obscure he couldn’t even land a spot in the Iowa debate. Michelle Cottle on the strangeness of the congressman’s lonely presidential campaign.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

It is Thursday afternoon, and Republican presidential candidate Thad McCotter is calling from somewhere on the Iowa freeway. The Michigan congressman has spent his morning trailing after the Values Bus Tour, a four-day, cross-state extravaganza sponsored by a trio of conservative groups and tied to this weekend’s straw poll. Now he’s headed back to the state fair in Des Moines, where he will enjoy pork on a stick, chat with voters, maybe jam on his guitar (he’s a committed ax man), and wait for the evening’s big event: a presidential debate, sponsored by Fox News and the state party, to be held at Iowa State University, and featuring eight GOP contenders.

Alas, McCotter will not be among the eight. Despite having shelled out five figures for a spot in Saturday’s straw poll, he failed to meet the participation threshold set by Fox News: 1 percent support in national polls.

McCotter is, to put it mildly, miffed. “It’s very frustrating,” he erupts, his words tumbling out ever faster as he recounts how his team met the criteria set by the Iowa GOP only to have Fox “overrule” the party and then, even after the network was presented with online polls showing that McCotter met the threshold—and not hinky fly-by-night surveys, he stresses, but ones with sound “methodology” approved by “scientific observers”— the network refused to relent.

Many of the polls Fox consulted hadn’t even included McCotter’s name, he points out. “I don’t expect to be setting the world on fire here at this point!” he fumes. “But the problem is, if I’m excluded from the polls, then I have no chance to meet the criteria.” Fox executives maintain that the polls cited by McCotter were not scientifically sound or nationally recognized.

And so, while the competition was mixing it up Thursday night, McCotter was back at the fairgrounds’ WHO Crystal Studio, live-streaming his response. “When they won’t let you in the front door,” explains a senior adviser to McCotter’s campaign, “you figure out a way to climb through the window.”

“It is what it is,” sighs McCotter. “You play through the pain.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of third-tier, seat-of-the-pants presidential runs.

It happens every cycle: Some little-known pol gets antsy and feels moved to make a play for the highest office in the land. So what if the candidate’s name recognition is lower than the Arkansas secretary of state’s or if (as in McCotter’s case) he polls in the low single digits among voters in his home state?

McCotter has only a skeletal staff that is still working on the basics. When I first contacted his campaign about an interview, the very polite, very confused gentleman answering the phones gave me contact info for staffer Ben Rothenberg. When reached, however, Rothenberg seemed totally perturbed that: a) I had somehow gotten hold of his private gmail address, and b) I had been sent his way at all.

“I don’t know what to do about this,” he insisted, explaining that he had no idea where the candidate was, what his schedule was for the next day or so, or when he might be able to talk.

“Are you not involved with the campaign?” I asked.

“I am the campaign’s director of communications.”

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Yet none of that matters. Be it New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith in 2000, Dennis Kucinich in 2004, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel in 2008, or McCotter in 2012, every White House race must have at least one Don Quixote who makes voters ask, “What is that guy doing out there?”

So far, McCotter’s quest has prompted even more head-scratching than that of your average long shot—at least to the smattering of voters who are aware he’s running at all. (His announcement was lower than low-key, taking place at an outdoor rock festival in Michigan on July 2. None of the cable networks covered it live.) “A lot of people can’t figure it out, including here in Michigan,” chuckles Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

Ballenger notes that McCotter, while seen as “very bright” and “very articulate,” isn’t a political force even back home. He has never faced a tough opponent in his Republican district northwest of Detroit (the boundaries of which McCotter originally helped draw during his term in the state senate), meaning he’s never had to raise serious cash. And despite four-plus terms in the House and four years in the leadership (McCotter was chairman of the Republican Policy Committee until last November), says Ballenger, “half the people here don’t even know who he is.”

Often, Hail-Mary candidates enter the fray to promote an ideological perspective or policy position that would otherwise be ignored. Think Kucinich’s paleoliberalism or Ron Paul’s gold-standard libertarianism or Gravel’s obsession with federal ballot initiatives. Sure enough, when asked to why he’s running, McCotter points to a couple of big issues he feels are being overlooked. One, he believes the financial sector must be fundamentally restructured before the economy can return to health. “A lot of people are still [advocating] the Keynesian approach or, among Republicans, the free-market approach,” he says, insisting, “They are misdiagnosing the problem.” Two, he thinks China isn’t getting enough scrutiny: “No one is addressing that nation’s threat to our prosperity and security in a comprehensive way.”

It is not entirely clear how McCotter intends to parlay these issues into a compelling call to arms. “Obviously they don’t go on a bumper sticker,” he acknowledges. And while the congressman’s politics have some interesting wrinkles—as a Michigander, he’s pro-union and occasionally breaks with his party to vote the interests of the auto industry and, more broadly, the manufacturing sector—even he describes himself as a solid conservative not looking to blaze any dramatically new trails. “I’m a rank-and-file Republican,” he tells me, then repeats for emphasis, “I’m a Republican.”

As for personal appeal, McCotter is not charismatic in a way likely to excite the masses. He doesn’t even have the twitchy intensity you so often see in fringe candidates—most likely because he’s not really out there on the fringe of anything. And as for glamour, let us just say McCotter is no Michele Bachmann. Tall, gaunt, pale, and a thin halo shy of cue-ball bald, the congressman looks just the teensiest bit like Lurch from the Addams Family.

Not that McCotter is colorless or unappealing. The 45-year-old father of three plays guitar in one of those cringe-inducing congressional bands that pop up now and again, this one adorably named the Second Amendments. His hero is John Lennon, whose picture hangs above his desk, and he has been known to quote Led Zeppelin on the House floor. As he’s wandered across Iowa and New Hampshire, McCotter has been toting his guitar.

Also in his favor, the congressman has a dark, bone-dry sense of humor that plays well with media types. During the 2009 hullabaloo over Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates’ arrest for “breaking into” his own home, McCotter introduced a formal resolution calling on Obama to apologize for criticizing the Cambridge police. Asked by Hardball’s Chris Matthews why he would go to so much trouble, McCotter deadpanned, “Well, one, I think you overestimate the time it took me in my garage to write it.”

Indeed, McCotter has become a popular guest on Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld, the satirical chat show that airs late, late at night on Fox News. Gutfeld says McCotter’s biting wit appeals to viewers. (The congressman once informed Gutfeld that he could easily do the TV host’s job, but then “so could a trained lemur.”) McCotter has a “well-rounded intellect,” says Gutfeld. “He’s not a pencil-pushing academic and he’s not a lumberjack. He combines both the real world and the Ivy League mentality.”

Ironically, Gutfeld kicked off a segment on the 2012 race earlier this year by urging McCotter to run. Still, even he was surprised when the congressman took him up on the proposal, and he admits to having no idea how McCotter can distinguish himself in this field. “Gosh, I don’t know,” he jokes, “consider having Obama as his running mate?”

New York Rep. Peter King is convinced that debates are the key to McCotter’s possible success, and he expresses disappointment that his friend was not allowed into this week’s Iowa match-up. “The first debate he’s in, he’s going to get attention,” predicts King. “He’s a thinker! And he has a very offbeat sense of humor which he can use to get his point across.”

King, a fellow Catholic, sees McCotter as one of the few Republicans who understand “how to apply the Reagan economic and political views to help working people.” Citing McCotter’s pro-union views as evidence of his connection with the working class, King says the congressman could provide “a good wake-up call” for the party. “He wants to show the Republican Party as basically a blue-collar, pro-defense party.”

To do that, however, McCotter will have to somehow elbow his way up onto the stage with the better-known candidates. He doesn’t need to crack the top tier, but he does need to be allowed in the same room with those in it.

“He’s really less than an asterisk at this point,” says Ballenger, musing, “What’s lower than an asterisk?”

Correction: This article originally misnamed McCotter staffer Ben Rothenberg. It has been updated.