2012 Candidates: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

by Stuart Rothenberg July 3, 2012 · 9:30 AM EDT

While I interview more than a hundred candidates each election cycle, I don’t evaluate them the way the average politically interested observer does. I don’t care about their ideology or their views on issues — except to the extent that their views make it easier or harder for them to get elected.

Having a scenario for victory isn’t enough to impress me either. Every candidate has one. I don’t think anyone has ever come in for an interview and acknowledged that he probably can’t win.

Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses. But some candidates are more articulate, personable, down-to-earth and politically savvy than others. And for whatever reason, some candidates are easier to like.

My list of the more interesting, likable candidates so far this cycle includes Republicans Kirk Adams of Arizona, Chauncey Goss of Florida, David Valadao and Gary DeLong of California, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, all running for the House. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats John Delaney of Maryland, Denny Heck of Washington, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joaquin Castro of Texas are on the list. Heitkamp is running for the Senate, while the others are running for the House.

Of course, candidate quality is only one factor in handicapping a race. District-level fundamentals and cycle-specific factors, after all, often trump the individual qualities of candidates.

But all of the candidates mentioned here have a chance of winning. Some are even solid favorites (or better).

Adams is in a tough GOP primary against former Rep. Matt Salmon. The winner of the primary will serve in the next Congress.

A businessman who served only one term in the Arizona House before taking on, and defeating, his party’s sitting Speaker, Adams was recruited into the Congressional race by outgoing Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). He is a conservative who understands the legislative process and the role of leadership and who believes that voters want Congress to address important issues, not merely posture about them.

Goss is the son of a former Congressman and CIA director. A former staffer at the Office of Management and Budget and on the House Budget Committee, Goss eventually opened up a consulting firm that focused on fiscal policy. He is an analyst and a policy wonk, not a bomb-thrower.

A dairy farmer from California’s Central Valley, Valadao is a freshman in the state Assembly. He’s personable and likable, confident without being cocky. When asked about his approach, he said: “I’m happy to work with Democrats. After all, they have to represent their districts just as I have to represent mine.”

DeLong is an underdog in another California race, but he looks like a potential fit for his Democratic-leaning district. A moderate Republican who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, DeLong talks about policy and politics with ease. He’s never defensive and never apologetic about his issue positions. He is who he is — like him or not. In other words, he’s a breath of fresh air.

Arkansas’ Cotton has to be one of the few people from Dardanelle, Ark., with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, he worked for McKinsey & Co. after leaving active duty. As conservative as any Republican I’ve ever interviewed, Cotton is smart, articulate and serious.

Heck, a Washington state Democrat, lost a bid for Congress two years ago but is in much better position this time thanks to the creation of a new Congressional district in the state. A former state House Majority Leader, he understands government and policy. Heck is a thoughtful, no-nonsense legislator whose generally liberal views should fit his district. But unlike some Members from both parties, he is likely to be more about legislating than posturing.

Maryland’s Delaney is a wealthy businessman and Democratic activist who won a competitive Democratic primary in his first bid for elective office. Measured, serious and experienced, he has deep roots in his community and his party, but he didn’t depend on party insiders to win the primary. That makes him a potentially interesting freshman legislator if he beats GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett in November.

Heitkamp has had her political and personal ups and downs, but she retains a sense of humor and a quiet confidence that gives her great appeal. She doesn’t talk like most politicians. She seems straightforward and honest, a North Dakotan who knows politics and policy — and her state. She doesn’t duck and dodge, even responding to a question about her support for the president’s health care law with, “I own it. I said what I said about health care.”

Castro, poised and polished and with degrees from Stanford and Harvard Law, is a state legislator who is a slam dunk to win an open House seat in Texas. The 37-year-old identical twin brother of the mayor of San Antonio, he could become a major player in Texas and even in national politics.

There are many other candidates I could have put on this list. I’ve seen plenty of appealing, quality candidates this cycle. But not every candidate interview this cycle has been enjoyable.

In their interviews with me and my colleagues, Maryland state Sen. Rob Garagiola (D) and Arizona special election nominee Jesse Kelly (R) stood out for being the most arrogant, least likable candidates of the cycle.

Garagiola, 39, who lost to Delaney in his primary and remains my own state Senator, behaved as if he were already the Democratic nominee when I interviewed him in late January. He acted as if he were Tom Cruise doing an exaggerated imitation of himself in the movie “Cocktail.” Calling him cocky simply doesn’t capture the ego he displayed.

Kelly, 31, a former Marine who has now narrowly lost two Congressional elections in Arizona, had one of the worst interviews in which I have participated. Acting as if I were the enemy, he refused to talk about what he learned from his 2010 Congressional bid, insisting again and again, “This campaign is 100 percent on the issues looking forward and there is no looking back.”

Other than that, I didn’t get much more than platitudes and talking points. If he was trying to be likable, I couldn’t see it.