For the unopposed, campaign season involves mild paranoia

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) expected to have one of his busiest campaign seasons this fall. “I’m going to be running,” he said of the pace he planned to keep until Election Day.

Has anyone told him his race is uncontested?

The same goes for the opponent-less Rep. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.). She’s planning on going on campaign bus tours and train rides in anticipation of Nov. 4.

“I will work just like I have a race,” she said.

While many members of Congress rushed from the bailout vote back to their districts to fight off opponents, dozens of other lawmakers have no such threat this fall. The assumption may be that those uncontested lawmakers can use campaign time to decompress and rev up for the 111th Congress, and maybe even take a few days off.

Not so, they insist.

Several lawmakers who are running uncontested races this fall said they are working just as hard as they would if they were in competitive races. Motivated by their colleagues’ tight contests, the high-stakes presidential campaign, their inner drive for competition, Election Day 2010 or just plain paranoia, these members are forgoing a rare chance to watch this fall’s campaigns. They’re joining in.

After admitting that it “is kind of nice” not to have an opponent this election, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) rattled off various stops she will make for Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign to help with Latino voter outreach. Although her job isn’t at stake in November, she’s campaigning hard because she sees other Democratic politicians’ success as linked to hers.

“My job gets easier if I can help get these people elected,” Solis said. “I consider myself a part of the team.”
Brown expressed the same motivation for participating in cross-state bus tours.

“The strength of the wolf is in the pack. I need a team,” she said. “It’s just like I am on the ballot.”

Other uncontested lawmakers are going full-bore this fall because they see a larger, more threatening foe in the distance.

“We run against apathy,” Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said. He is in his first uncontested general election, though he usually faces competition in primary races, he said. In addition to campaigning for Obama, he’ll tend to his district’s needs.

“If you don’t stay in front of your voters, then when you do have an opponent, they’ll say, ‘Where have you been?’ ” Payne said.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has an opponent but has run unopposed in past elections. He agreed with Payne’s uncontested-campaign strategy.

“It’s important to stay in touch with your district,” he said. He keeps the same election mindset and schedule whether or not he has an opponent. The main difference is the fundraising required, Diaz-Balart noted.

For GOP lawmakers who are unopposed or nominally opposed, staying in touch with constituents means explaining their controversial “yes” vote on the bailout bill.

Both Reps. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and George Radanovich (R-Calif.) said they will spend time this fall talking with constituents about Congress’s actions on the flailing U.S. economy.

“I am trying to put out a raging fire in my district,” Conaway said in a phone interview from Texas. “I voted yes on the vote, and my district wanted me to vote no.”

Conaway has a Libertarian opponent, and he expects his foe will enjoy “a bunch of protest votes” as a result of his support of the bailout bill.

Conaway, who ran unopposed in his first congressional race in 2006 and was again uncontested in this year’s primary, recently logged 350 miles in one day while driving around his district to talk to constituents.

“What I have done is tried to act like I have an opponent, because, being a new member of Congress, I didn’t want anybody to think I was taking anything for granted,” he said.

Radanovich said he will also discuss his “yes” vote on the bailout bill. Though he has no opponent, he estimated that his August schedule was four times as busy as “any of my colleagues’ here in the valley.”
These members are wise to take a proactive approach.

“If a member of Congress is not facing steep competition this time, that doesn’t mean he or she won’t face steep competition next time,” said Jennifer Lawless, a Brown University political science professor who ran against Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Lawless said a member’s hard work in an unopposed election cycle might appear to be paranoia-driven, but it can “stave off future competitors.”

“It’s justified paranoia, [because] they like their jobs, they like what they’re doing, and their contract can be canceled every two years,” she said.

That dedication typically pays off.

“The fact that they’re uncontested is usually a testament to a member who is always out there working,” said Ed Brookover, a political consultant with the firm Greener and Hook and a former political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Surely, these members must break at some point. But they’re loath to admit such a weakness.

When asked if he has any plans for personal time this fall, Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), another unopposed lawmaker, laughed off the idea.

“That’s why I don’t have any opposition,” he said.