By Aaron Blake - 05/23/07 07:18 PM EDT
Former Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) is well known on Capitol Hill as a former magician, but it was Democrat Carol Shea-Porter who tricked everyone last year by defeating the two-term incumbent with an under-funded, grassroots campaign.
Bradley’s reappearing act didn’t take long, though, and he’s been making the rounds in New Hampshire’s 1st district laying the groundwork for a swift return to Congress.
Bradley, in Washington this week to meet with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and potential media consultants, is one of several former members running for their old seat or weighing a repeat bid.
But unlike the one other officially declared comeback candidate, former Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), who has admitted mistakes on the campaign trail and said he ran a “lackluster” race, Bradley maintains that he left his heart and soul on the ground in eastern New Hampshire.
“I worked as hard as I possibly could in this campaign, and I felt I had done everything that I possibly could have done to put myself in a position to win,” Bradley said. “A lot of people thought we were going to win, but we still worked as hard as we possibly could.”
Bradley wouldn’t say he was as surprised as everyone else by his three-point loss, but he did say he would do things differently this time. And one of his first goals is stoking the kind of grassroots support that spurred a relatively unknown Democrat into his seat.
He said he is starting his campaign early to improve on the grass roots, yet declined to go into specifics about other lessons learned from the last race or to concede any grassroots advantage for Shea-Porter.
The race appears set to be similar to 2006 in that both sides are trying to paint the other as out of touch with centrist voters. The state experienced a Democratic renaissance in 2006, possibly more than any other state, but both sides recognize the fight over the middle that has defined it for years.
Bradley’s camp cast Shea-Porter as a leftist anti-war candidate in 2006, and they say her voting record will reveal her for what she is. Shea-Porter’s camp and Democrats often cited Bradley’s record of voting with President Bush 80 percent of the time.
Shea-Porter, who was so unknown when she won her seat that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean couldn’t recall her name, has been working on building a moderate record in the House, aides say.
Despite winning largely as an anti-war candidate, Democrats emphasize that she’s not aligned with the get-out-now-no-matter-what crowd or the Progressive Caucus on the war.
When Shea-Porter took her seat, she declined to accept a slot in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) Frontline program for its most vulnerable members. Joining with fellow freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), who beat Ryun, she stressed her independence from the party by passing up the fundraising help that goes along with it.
Shea-Porter’s office also points to her service on the House Armed Services Committee and her work on behalf of veterans — an important constituency in the district — including working on a bill to provide full benefits for Merchant Mariners from World War II.
Shea-Porter said she will run another thrifty campaign — she spent less than $300,000 on the last one — and she was among the lowest freshman Democratic fundraisers after the first quarter, with about $100,000.
“Mr. Bradley thought he could win in 2006 by outspending me, buying bigger signs and more commercials,” Shea-Porter said. “But the New Hampshire electorate is pretty sophisticated, and they aren’t fooled by that. People want a member of Congress that truly speaks up for them.”
Republicans have sought to tar Shea-Porter’s record and character early and often. In one episode from February, they rapped her for calling two pro-Iraq war women who wrote to a local newspaper to criticize her for welcoming anti-war protesters into her office.
The women said they felt intimidated by the calls. Shea-Porter said the calls were part of a good-natured outreach to constituents.
Her office also notes that both women have been very involved in Republican politics. One comes from a political family that raised money for President Bush and has donated to Bradley, and both have ties to a local Republican women's organization.“Carol Shea-Porter is getting noticed for all the wrong reasons and has made herself increasingly vulnerable in the process,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.
Bradley said he enjoys a good relationship with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a 2002 classmate who heads the NRCC, but it’s not yet clear whether he’ll be the only Republican candidate in the race. Primary rumors persist, though no big names have surfaced publicly.
Bradley thus far hasn’t sought to scare off potential opponents with his fundraising, which he said he is just now in the process of starting. He added that he will be raising money “at every opportunity” over the next year and a half.
While Ryun and Bradley jumped back into their races within a matter of months, others have been slower to make the leap or have opted out. Former Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.) were all rumored soon after the election to be comeback candidates.
The DCCC has derided the potential repeat candidates for, in their estimation, disregarding the voters’ 2006 judgments.
“Former Congressman Jeb Bradley was fired from his job for representing President Bush instead of New Hampshire families,” DCCC spokeswoman Carrie James said. “Carol Shea-Porter hasn’t forgotten who elected her to Congress, and that’s why she’s fighting for hardworking New Hampshire families.”
Congressional candidates won’t be the only ones fighting for New Hampshire families in 2008, with the state’s presidential primary remaining one of the most important in the country.
Bradley says the contrast the presidential race will create can help him carve out the differences between himself and Shea-Porter.
“I think that what the presidential race is going to do is that the country will be looking ahead, not in the rearview mirror,” Bradley said.