Coming home

When Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) shuttered his 2012 presidential campaign and returned to the House, he received a warm message: Welcome home.

“I was very thankful for the way the members responded to my coming back,” he said. “People like Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio] and others were happy. There was not the sense of, ‘Well, you got to run and I didn’t.’ ”

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Most lawmakers with presidential aspirations end up returning to Congress rather than packing for the White House. In this election cycle, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) left the GOP presidential primary following the Iowa caucuses, and one other member of Congress, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is still in the hunt.

Though each lawmaker-turned-presidential candidate has a different welcome-back-to-Capitol-Hill experience, many say their bonds with their congressional colleagues eased the transition and the lessons they learned from the campaign provided them with new purpose.

Welcomed back

Bachmann spoke fondly of her fellow lawmakers upon her return to the House.

“I look forward to a productive second session of Congress with my colleagues who have been so encouraging,” she wrote in an email.

In 2008, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) came back to Congress amid a supportive chorus of fellow Democratic senators led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) chanting, “We need you!” after she lost the nomination to then-fellow Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

And when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) returned to Capitol Hill following his 2004 presidential run, he, too, was met with open arms.

“The welcome I got from my friends here was huge,” he wrote in an email. “You come back from a national campaign having thrown yourself into that effort and invested so personally, and you’re reminded you’ve got real friends here.

“The night of the inauguration in 2005, [former Sens.] Teddy Kennedy [D-Mass.] and Chris Dodd [D-Conn.] came over for dinner at my home, and I was reminded of the special friends you make here who stick by you when things don’t turn out as you hoped,” Kerry said. “That’s priceless. There’s no way to put a value on that kind of genuine friendship and loyalty. That’s a great thing about this place.”

There’s “a camaraderie in our caucus,” he said. “I will never forget going to my first caucus meeting after the election and having colleagues encourage me to keep fighting.”

Silver linings

Kerry said his colleagues also pointed out the benefits of his campaign experience.

“Ted Kennedy reminded me how much better a senator he was after he’d run for president because he’d learned so much about the country,” he said. “Joe Biden told me about the Senate when he’d first come here, when people like Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater had run for president and lost but gone on to be hugely productive senators.

“I realized that there’s a gigantic opportunity here to take that campaign experience and put it to work as an asset in the caucus and in the Senate, and that was energizing,” Kerry added.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) ran for president in 1996, much before his 2002 election to Congress, but he said his earlier, nationwide campaign helped him win his Senate seat. The former Tennessee governor and Education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration had no plans to run for Congress but was encouraged to do so after Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) announced his retirement in 2002.

“Having run for president in the ’90s was a help to me,” he said. “It kept my name before the people in Tennessee. It built a financial network.

“It focused me on national issues, which are different than the issues that a governor deals with, more like what a senator deals with,” Alexander added. “And it focused me on a Republican primary.”

But the challenges Alexander faced on the Senate campaign trail were nothing compared to the gantlet of the presidential race.

“Running for the Senate compares with the presidential campaign in the same way playing eighth-grade basketball compares with the NBA finals,” he joked. “It’s the most challenging thing I’d ever tried to do.

“Running for president is the ultimate startup in our big, very entrepreneurial country, and it’s complex and challenging and much more difficult than it looks, and most people who think about it don’t do it, and most people who try don’t get very far,” Alexander said.

Lessons learned

Though his transition back to his House duties was smooth, McCotter pointed out that it was his time in the House that helped prepare him for a presidential campaign devoid of embarrassment.

As presidential candidates stare down a 24-hour news cycle and endless opportunities for gaffes, those lacking extensive congressional experience might not be so lucky.

“That is a problem on either side of the aisle,” McCotter said. “It’s easy to make an impression and get attention … But if you’re new, and the attention is either necessary and/or intoxicating, what you do is you find out that in the stridency it takes to make a first impression, one day you may wish you hadn’t.”

Even amid the perils and pitfalls of a presidential run, McCotter and the other lawmakers who once ran for the highest elected office in the land expressed gratitude for their experiences and lessons learned.

“I think the experience of running for president, being governor, gives me some background and experience that I hope makes me a better senator,” Alexander concluded. “I’m very happy where I am.”

“I loved campaigning for president,” Kerry wrote. “I think that campaign experience, including lessons learned the hard way … made me a much more effective advocate inside this place.”