'Lawmaker' has become new dirty word back home on the campaign trail in 2010

If you want to run for higher office, the worst thing to put on your campaign mail might be the word “congressman.”

Members of Congress all over the country are struggling in their bids to pursue other offices and, in some cases, the sins of Washington are weighing heavily on their primary campaigns.

On Tuesday, an arduous gubernatorial primary will come to a head for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). Gov. Rick Perry is a near-cinch to beat her, either in the primary or in a runoff, and much of the blame for that goes to Hutchison’s current employer — the federal government.

Hutchison’s fate appears to be on the mind of some other members running for governor. Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) on Monday became the second House member to announce he would resign early to concentrate on his gubernatorial campaign, joining Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who resigned over the weekend.

In exiting the House, Deal sought to turn his nine terms in Washington into a positive.

“I’m leaving Congress because I’ve had a front-row seat to the damage that inexperience in the executive branch of the federal government has done to our nation,” he said. “This is not a time for untested leadership in the governor’s office.”

Both Deal and Abercrombie face difficult primaries in which their time in Washington has already been an issue. Observers say they and other members would be well-served to put as much distance between themselves and the nation’s capital as possible.

Hutchison has long been a popular political figure in Texas, but she has seen Perry successfully tar her with the insider label, and she has suggested that her inability to resign her Senate seat early has hurt her campaign.

When asked whether members of Congress should be afraid in light of what’s happened to Hutchison, one Texas GOP strategist put it bluntly.

“You bet your ass — regardless of what happens in Texas,” the strategist said. “Every incumbent who voted for that bailout should be concerned, because it’s an incredibly unpopular vote.”

Gubernatorial-race expert Thad Beyle of the University of North Carolina said all incumbents should be worried.

“It’s a tough time for people to be choosing to run for governor or even reelection,” Beyle said.

Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report added: “It’s a cautionary tale about the political environment. There’s enough history of members of Congress doing pretty well in governors’ races. Look at 2002.”

In that year, six members of Congress won governorships. This year, nine members — including Hutchison and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) — are going after the governor’s mansion.

But while Brownback is a good bet to win in Kansas, the rest of them are running into plenty of trouble thanks, in part, to their day jobs.

Abercrombie is squaring off against Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, while Deal is stuck in a crowded field of Republicans that includes state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) has weathered some attacks on his record in Washington as he runs for governor. On Monday, the conservative group Americans for Job Security launched an ad hitting him on voting for the bailout and accepting stimulus funds for his district.

Another Republican in the South, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) is confronting something similar, while in Michigan, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) surged to a 27-21 lead over state Attorney General Mike Cox in the latest poll but has lagged behind in the money chase.

Hoekstra’s opponents have tried frequently to cast him as the candidate of Washington, but he has a ready response: the fact that he’s slept on his office couch for the last 17 years.

“I was the one who voted against No Child Left Behind, and I got in Newt’s doghouse a few times,” Hoekstra said. “It’s pretty well-known that this is a guy who hasn’t gone D.C. on us.”

Abercrombie is one of two Democratic House members running for governor. The other, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), looks like a favorite in his primary against state Insurance Commissioner Ron Sparks, but faces a difficult general election.

In fact, besides Brownback, about the only member of Congress having a relatively easy time running for governor is Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.), a longtime former lieutenant governor known more for her tenure in state government than her two terms in federal office. And Democrats are even looking to go after her.

Candidates around the country have been doing the dance for months — working in Washington while railing against it.

Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who is the front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination in his state, said the key is having a record to be proud of.

“Certainly there is an anti-incumbency thing going on right now, but if you’ve worked hard for your district and voted in a conservative way, that’s what people of Arkansas are hungry for,” Boozman said.

So far, only two members of Congress running for other office have faced voters. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) lost a special-election Senate primary to Martha Coakley, while Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) overcame a modest challenge in his Senate primary last month.

Members running for Senate also include Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), Charlie Melancon (D-La.), Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), Mike Castle (R-Del.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Only Sestak, Moran and Tiahrt face significant primaries, and all three of them face fellow members of Congress.