Siren song calls former lawmakers

The hours are ungodly, the job satisfaction is low, and don’t even think about asking for a raise. But even as many long-serving members are racing for the Capitol’s exits, some ex-lawmakers still want their old jobs back.

Sixteen House members are retiring this year, with more expected before 2014 kicks into high gear. National polling shows congressional approval at an all-time low, and the last Congress made it into the history books for how little it got done.

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But the siren song of Congress is still drawing at least nine former lawmakers back into the race to return.

Some, like former New Hampshire Republican Rep. Frank Guinta, who’s challenging his old nemesis Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D), are launching rematches after narrowly losing last cycle.

Four other former GOP congressmen are also hoping a favorable political climate will help them fare better than in a presidential year in rematches against Democrats who defeated them in 2012 — Bob Dold and Bobby Schilling in Illinois, Nan Hayworth in New York and Quico Canseco in Texas.

Others, including former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who is running for Senate candidate Rep. Phil Gingrey’s (R-Ga.) open seat, see a political opportunity they should capitalize on. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, former Democratic Rep. Marjorie Margolies is running in the open seat to succeed Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D), who’s running for governor. And in California, former GOP Rep. Doug Ose is vying among other Republicans to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera.

Those ex-lawmakers back on the campaign trail today emphasize the work, rather than the reputation, as their motivation for getting back in the game. Former California Democratic Rep. Joe Baca said he was frustrated because of what he sees as current members ignoring Americans that need the most help.

“I gained my seniority to see that the farm bill went through with a good emphasis on food stamps or SNAP, and I worked so hard to make sure that we increased the funding for that. And to see this farm bill, at a time when many need that assistance, is troubling,” Baca said.

Still, it’s not an easy decision to make.

Baron Hill, an Indiana Democrat who lost his seat in 2004 only to regain it in 2006, said he had resigned himself after his first loss to living life as a private citizen, until he ran into Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) outside of the Supreme Court one night and was encouraged to run again.

“I’ll never forget, after that conversation, walking back to my apartment thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m actually thinking about it now,’ ” he said.

Hill set up a campaign office in a back room of his house staffed only by him and his wife, hitting the campaign trail and fundraising circuit on his own for a few months, until he was able to raise enough to support a full operation.

But, as Hill put it, running again after getting ousted was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“I was angry about [losing] the election, and people don’t like angry candidates, so I had to get rid of all that mentally and not be angry anymore,” he said.

The fundraising, Hill said, was particularly difficult.

“When you’re starting from scratch, you’re not the incumbent; that’s hard to get that energy back and get back into it again,” said the Democrat. “Getting back, especially into the fundraising mode, and convincing people you deserve another shot was tough.”
Hill was victorious — briefly. He defeated his frequent foe, Republican Mike Sodrel, in 2006 but went on to lose in the 2010 GOP wave to newcomer Todd Young.

Barr lost his seat in the 2002 redistricting, but is now attempting a congressional comeback after making a quixotic 2008 presidential bid as a Libertarian. The Georgia Republican said he’s had a tougher time fundraising this cycle as well, though he chalked it up to the struggling economy.

“Fundraising is difficult for all candidates in the current environment. The economy is not where we’d like it to be,” he said. “I do appreciate the supporters that I had in the past who have come forward and responded very generously once again.”

Baca was also a victim of redistricting, losing in 2012 to fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod, and feels he was ousted because the redrawn version of his district had less of his original territory. Now, he hopes to be more successful in California’s 31st District, though he faces a crowded primary there, where he’s not the choice of national Democrats.

But for many members, some aspects of running again are easier, especially with easily tapped political networks.

Tom Reynolds, a former New York Republican congressman and National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, noted that rerun candidates have a built-in base of support and recognition in their districts.

“For the most part, someone that has run for office before has a name ID across their district. If it’s where their unfavorables are higher than their favorables, however, they may want to have one last look at where they’re running, based on if they have notoriety or good regard,” he said.

Now, former members are largely pitching their experience in Congress as their main selling point and characterize themselves as an antidote to the gridlock that’s caused record-low approval ratings for Congress.

Many of them started in office when bipartisanship was more common, and they point out that one result of the high turnover Congress has seen over the past three cycles is that new members don’t have the institutional knowledge needed to get things done.

Barr said that, while President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were a large cause of the gridlock because they refuse to work with Republicans, part of the issue is Republicans themselves.

“A lot of it has to do with how we operate as Republicans. It’s important to set very clear priorities, consistent priorities, and know how to work them through various committees,” he said.

“You have to press these issues forward over a long period of time. And a lot of members simply don’t seem to have the interest or the knowledge of how that system operates to do that.”

Barr was a leader on the effort to impeach President Clinton, but nearly two decades later, he touts the work Congress did while Clinton was in office to balance the budget, and praises the former president for his “willingness to work with Republicans.”

Baca touted the seniority and policy stature he could resume, if he wins again.

“I’ll go back to the committees where I was effective,” he said.

Though the current candidates won’t say so, former lawmakers admit there’s something enticing about the office itself.

“Some people like the regard that the public does pay a high-level elected official, and there is certainly regard for one’s hometown congressman,” Reynolds said.

And Hill admitted his ego did play into his decision.

“There’s an element of that,” he said. “Anybody who would tell you otherwise is not being honest with you.”

But when asked whether he’d do it again, though, he was adamant.

“I might look at the Senate, because I think things work differently there. But my old seat in the House? Nuh-uh,” Hill said.