Ousted lawmakers have another go and try to reclaim their former seats

Ousted congressmen trying to reclaim their old seats is a hallmark of any election year, but the anti-establishment political climate is adding to the challenge for this year’s class of reruns.

Five former Republican House members are mounting comeback attempts in 2010, hoping to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with a sluggish economy and Democratic control of government.

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Two other GOP ex-congressmen — Mike Sodrel (Ind.) and Richard Pombo (Calif.) — have already lost in primaries.

On the Democratic side, former Rep. Ed Case (Hawaii) lost in a three-way special election to replace Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D), despite having the support of the party establishment in Washington. Case, who was not running in the district he previously represented, dropped out of the race for a full term in November, leaving the Democratic nomination against Rep. Charles Djou (R) to state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa.

The anti-Washington mood has prompted a split in the strategies of Republicans seeking a return to Congress. Some are focusing on their record in office, while others are downplaying their legislative history and instead focusing on their experience in business.

“Politics for me has never been a profession. It’s been a hobby,” said former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who is running for the seat he lost to Rep. Paul Hodes (D) in 2006. Hodes is now running for the Senate, leaving the 2nd district seat open.

In his time out of office, Bass has worked as a consultant to clean-energy companies, and he stresses his business acumen as much or more than his political experience.

“I’ve been out of politics for four years. Four years is a long time,” he said. Bass said voters in his district have come to know him as a businessman more than a congressman.

Still, Bass’s record in Washington has come under attack from his opponents in the Sept. 14 Republican primary, particularly from Jennifer Horn, a conservative activist and radio host.

“Charlie Bass is the definition of a career politician and a Washington insider,” Horn told The Hill.

Horn has criticized Bass for voting for budgets that contributed to the deficit, saying his calls for lower spending are hypocritical. “Career politicians and Washington insiders cannot fix what they have broken; in fact, they are the problem,” Horn wrote in a recent editorial in the Manchester Union Leader. “Some experience is just too expensive.”

Bass acknowledges that Republicans made mistakes while in power, but he blames the Democrats for exploding the deficit in the last two years. “After I left Congress, the economy fell apart,” he said.

In Michigan’s 7th district, an Iraq war veteran, Brian Rooney, is using a similar outsider-versus-insider strategy to challenge former Rep. Tim Walberg for the GOP nomination in the race against incumbent Rep. Mark Schauer (D). Their primary is Aug. 3.

“I’m not a politician. I have real-world experience,” Rooney said. He added that his experience serving his country in the Marines was “not tainted by Washington, D.C.”

“Everywhere I go, it’s ‘Throw everyone out. Let’s start over,’ ” Rooney said. Walberg, who was ousted in 2008, is part of that, he said. “The Republicans lost their way. They gave Democrats ammunition to take over the House, the Senate and the White House,” Rooney said. “They got institutionalized, if you will.”

Unlike Bass in New Hampshire, Walberg is embracing his experience in Congress and running firmly on his record in Washington. He called Rooney “a neophyte” and said he was the only “proven conservative” in the race.

“I don’t see any reason not to run on my record,” Walberg said. He noted proudly that he voted against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout in the fall of 2008, shortly before he lost his reelection bid to Schauer.

Walberg blamed his loss on GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) decision to pull out of Michigan, which dampened support for the Republican ticket in the state.

As for 2010, Walberg said, “it’s a totally different ballgame.”

Other former Republican House members running this year include Steve Pearce (N.M.), who gave up his seat in 2008 for an unsuccessful bid for Senate, Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.).

Democrats have seized on the candidacies to underscore their message that the GOP is the party of the past. The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), said in an interview that “the Republican challenges are summed up by the fact that they have so many retreads and reruns.”

“It reflects the fact that they have no new ideas,” he said. “The voters are rejecting these reruns just as they rejected the rerun of the Republican economic agenda.”

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As for Case, the Democratic ex-congressman who lost in a primary in Hawaii, Van Hollen attributed the defeat to local factors rather than an anti-establishment mood.

Republicans responded that Democrats are also guilty of running repeat candidates, citing the now-infamous example of disgraced former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), who won election in 2008 after being defeated in 2006. Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) also won in 2008 on a second try.

“It’s ironic to hear Chairman Van Hollen criticize so-called ‘rerun’ candidates when he was successful in helping Democrats like ‘Tickle Me’ Eric Massa get elected the second time around,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The fact is, voters are rejecting Democrats in these races because their rhetoric on the campaign trail has not matched the job-killing agenda they have supported in Washington.”