Returning congressmen pick up with unfinished business - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

'Comeback kids' of Congress look to make impact after absence

Despite leaving Capitol Hill and working in other sectors, several former members of Congress are returning to pick up where they left off. Despite leaving Capitol Hill and working in other sectors, several former members of Congress are returning to pick up where they left off.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-1) (Source: Office of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick) Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-1) (Source: Office of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick)
Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-5) (Source: U.S. Congress) Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-5) (Source: U.S. Congress)
David Mark is the editor-in-chief of Politix. (Source: David Mark is the editor-in-chief of Politix. (Source:

(RNN) - Senators have the luxury of six-year terms; House members are not so lucky. Representatives have to balance their duties with the constant pressure of having to run for re-election every two years.

A shift in the political climate can mean defeat for even seasoned representatives.

While most who lose re-election find other lines of work, a handful keep fighting to get their old jobs back.

They have to defeat not only their opponent, but the negative perception that comes with losing an election, said an author and longtime political analyst.

"Once you've lost your seat, you've been labeled as a loser," said David Mark, editor-in-chief of Politix and author of Going Dirty: the Art of Negative Campaigning. "You have to convince people that you can actually come back and reclaim it. For all the members who have come back, there are probably two or three times as many members that didn't make it."

Of the 67 freshman representatives in the 113th Congress, nine previously served in the House and most lost close elections after one term.

There's no easy way to make a comeback, said two members of the Arizona caucus who battled their way back to power.

"Hard work. It's pretty simple. There's nothing fancy about it," said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), who won her seat back in November.

A Republican colleague thanked his support staff.

"Wonderful volunteers," added returning Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ). "I had the best array of volunteers that I've ever had in any of my campaigns and I would have never won without them."

Redistricting gives members a second life

The 2010 election was a critical year for Republicans.

The GOP capitalized on diminishing Democrat momentum and took the house majority before the 2010 census mandated redistricting.

"It was a difficult time economically and the Great Recession really hit my district hard," Kirkpatrick said about her unsuccessful 2010 re-election campaign. "Folks were angry and they didn't feel like Congress was doing its job. And that's why we have two-year terms."

She lost by 6 percent.

Once district lines were redrawn, Democrats looked to dent the Republicans' 242-member majority.

Democrats like Kirkpatrick who were ousted in 2010 have been called the "comeback kids."

Many were able to take new or open districts where they still had a support base, which allowed ousted representatives to reclaim office.

"(A returning candidate) needs to make an argument to donors and say 'This was a wave election and I got swept out by the national tide. But they really like me in my district and I previously lost by a small margin,'" Mark said.

That described Kirkpatrick's case precisely.

"Folks knew that I had experience, I had a great track record, and they knew that I had a mannerism of working across the aisle to get things done," Kirkpatrick said about her supporters.

Returning members suggested their private sector experience after their first stint on Capitol Hill helps them better represent their new district.

After unsuccessfully running for governor of Arizona and serving as the Arizona Republican Party chairman, Salmon worked with Arizona State University, the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium and Phoenix-based military armor design group Armor Works over the span of 12 years.

"When you get to see how what you've done in Washington impacts everyday people on the outside, it had an indelible impact on my thinking," Salmon said. "It made me a lot more committed to bringing my ideas back to Washington."

Knowing when to strike

Returning to office takes delicate timing.

A returning member has to gauge the political mood and evaluate how much their previous loss would affect their re-election bid.

"It's about picking your spot and knowing when to return," Mark said. "In a lot of these cases, members came back after one term, but in some seats they didn't try to come back immediately. They may have waited for the political climate to change."

The political atmosphere can be a major factor in a returning member's success despite any skepticism outsiders might have about a comeback campaign.

"I thought that running as a comeback was going to be really, really difficult," Kirkpatrick said, adding that redrawn district lines, former constituent support and a focus on promoting job growth were major factors in her re-election.

Salmon, who served from 1995 to 2001 on a promise to reduce the country's debt, decided to step down due to his campaign promise that he would serve no longer than three consecutive terms. He made his term limit promise while public opinion towards career congressmen was vastly negative.

"It was a pledge I made that was very, very important to me," Salmon said. "But had I not made that promise, I would have run again."

"In fact, after I left, the Republican Congress and Republican president went onto deficit spending. I was really disappointed that I wasn't in the House to fight against some of that goofiness."

However, the growing concern over the country's budget motivated Salmon to come back. He ran on a platform similar to his 1994 campaign, emphasizing that he had the experience needed to fix the deficit.

Salmon added that the federal debt was about $5 trillion when he left office in 2001, but has since climbed to more than $16 trillion.

"I looked at those (numbers) and Obamacare, completely gobbling up the healthcare industry and hurting small business owners like myself, and decided I couldn't stand on the sidelines anymore."

Concern over the budget and employment helped returning Democrats and Republicans alike. People were looking for a change, regardless of the party that was in office at the time.

Salmon argued that his district supported his comeback because of his "laser beam" efforts to cut spending and his constituency's calls to stimulate the economy. Kirkpatrick had a similar explanation for her return to Capitol Hill.

"The 2012 campaign was all about jobs. And it's still about jobs and economic development," Kirkpatrick said. "I have a vision for a diversified, stable economy."

Avoiding the growth of partisanship

Strong party support within a district can be the difference between success and failure for a former member seeking re-election. Today's political climate hasn't allowed for much bipartisanship.

"The parties have sorted themselves out, so even the most moderate Democrats are still more liberal than moderate Republicans," Mark said. "There isn't much room for crossover anymore."

Kirkpatrick's view doesn't align with Mark's sentiment about the comeback success, arguing that her bipartisan record convinced her constituency.

"In this diverse district, the one thing that unifies it is (wanting) jobs and economic development. My vision for the district really cuts across party lines and there was enthusiastic support throughout my campaign," Kirkpatrick said.

The partisan climate in Congress is a major issue despite the general support for members who have a bipartisan record. Returning members on both sides acknowledge that unwillingness to reach across the aisle has increased.

"I think it's become a lot more partisan and a lot angrier," Salmon said. "People are always playing towards the cameras."

Salmon added that social media has fueled dirty politics because of how easy it is to insult and blame the opposition through Twitter or Facebook.

"While I think that social media is a good thing and helps get your message out, it's not a substitute for face to face (discussion)," he said.

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