Meet 3 Divergent House Candidates Worth Watching

by Stuart Rothenberg April 10, 2014 · 9:59 AM EDT

While some observers of politics apparently are only interested in statistical models that predict electoral outcomes, I have always thought that candidates matter — both during campaigns and, particularly, when the victorious arrive in Washington, D.C.

In fact I have found interviewing congressional candidates one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Last week, I interviewed three credible hopefuls in three interesting races: California Republicans Steve Knight and Jeff Gorell, and Pennsylvania Democrat Val Arkoosh.

Knight is locked in a fight for retiring Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon’s open 25th District, while Gorell is likely to face off against freshman Democrat Julia Brownley in the state’s 26th District in November. Arkoosh, on the other hand, is one of four contenders in a Southeastern Pennsylvania Democratic primary (Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz’s open seat) that will choose the next House member from the state’s 13th District.

Knight is a state senator, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department and the son of a long-time former California legislator. In the open primary, he and another Republican, former state senator Tony Strickland, and Democrat Lee Rogers are fighting for two places on the November ballot.

In 2012, Rogers made the November runoff by drawing just under 30 percent of the vote. No matter which two hopefuls make the November runoff, that election should favor a Republican in this Los Angeles County district.

Knight, a conservative, served on the Palmdale City Council before winning election to the state Assembly and, eventually, the California Senate. He clearly is angry that Strickland, who ran against Brownley in the 26th District last cycle, switched races when the 25th District became open.

Strickland has the support of McKeon, and, more importantly, he has plenty of cash. That’s something Knight doesn’t have. But Knight does have deep roots in the Antelope Valley, an important part of the district, and plenty of endorsements throughout the district, including from Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Strickland and his wife, Audra, have held a number of offices and run unsuccessfully for others. They have made friends along the way but also stepped on plenty of toes.

Both Strickland, whom I interviewed in early February, and Knight are personable and articulate. Strickland has gotten more attention in D.C. because of his Capitol Hill connections, past run for Congress and considerable financial advantage. But Knight starts with a geographic advantage and, while seen as an underdog in the nation’s capital, deserves watching in the June 3 primary.

In the neighboring 26th District, located in Ventura County, Republican Assemblyman Gorell hopes to upset Brownley.

A former deputy district attorney in Ventura County for six years, Gorell is in the Naval Reserves and served two tours in Afghanistan (in 2002 and 2011-2012).

He was elected to the Assembly in 2010, succeeding Audra Strickland, who was term-limited. Gorell was re-elected with 52 percent in 2012 at the same time that Mitt Romney was drawing just 43.7 percent in the district. He was endorsed by both the state Chamber of Commerce and the California Labor Federation in his Assembly races.

A self-described moderate Republican who calls himself pro-choice, Gorell believes that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and favors comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for those not here legally.

The GOP challenger came across as one of the most personable, thoughtful, pragmatic and likable candidates I have met this cycle. The question is whether that will be enough for him to oust Brownley, given her incumbency and considerable financial advantage. At the least, this district deserves a long look from those of us who initially didn’t have it on our radar.

Finally, many months ago I wrote that state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s open 13th District, was “stunningly down to earth, easy to talk to and analytic. He is able to evaluate himself and others in a detached, thoughtful way. And he is funny and self-deprecating.”

Leach is now in a four-way fight against state Rep. Brendan Boyle, former Rep. Marjorie Margolies and Arkoosh for the May 20 Democratic primary.

Last week, I met Arkoosh, an anesthesiologist and one-time president of the progressive National Physicians Alliance, and found her to be a quality candidate as well. Personable, well-spoken and obviously knowledgeable on health care issues, she has a strong campaign team and cash in her war chest.

Arkoosh was active during the initial health care debate and notes that while she is the only Democrat in the race who isn’t a politician, she learned how Washington works during her efforts to pass a health care bill.

The primary, which takes place in a district that includes northeast Philadelphia and parts of Montgomery County, is difficult to handicap.

Margolies, who served a single term in Congress and was defeated largely because of her vote supporting the 1993 Clinton budget, probably begins with a name ID advantage. And given that she lost her seat supporting Bill Clinton’s budget and her son married Chelsea Clinton in 2010, it’s difficult to believe that one of the Clintons won’t boost her candidacy in the final weeks of the race.

The two state legislators already represent parts, albeit small ones, of the district and can claim legislative experience. Boyle has a number of local and national union endorsements, while Leach has been endorsed by a number of individuals and groups on the party’s left, including Vermont Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders,, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America.

Arkoosh should have the most money, and has been endorsed by state Rep. Steve McCarter, a Montgomery County legislator, and the Women’s Campaign Fund, where Margolies once served as president. But if she wins, it will be because of her personal story and appeal.

Knight, Gorell and Arkoosh have different agendas and will vote differently if they get to Capitol Hill. But all three have a chance to be nominated and then elected, and all three merit watching.