So You Want to Be a Political Handicapper? 2014 Edition

by Stuart Rothenberg July 30, 2014 · 10:29 AM EDT

The thought of three candidate interviews over a four-hour period invariably fills me with dread.

The chance of all three congressional hopefuls being thoughtful, reasonable and personable — and having a good chance of winning in the fall — is relatively small.

But sometimes the unexpected happens. And on July 16, I had the pleasure of interviewing three quality candidates.

Democrat Pete Aguilar is likely to win California’s open 31st District. Of course, he was regarded as the favorite two years ago, but Democrats got an unpleasant surprise when two Republicans finished first and second in the open primary and met in November.

That almost happened again this cycle, but Aguilar, 35, squeezed into second place narrowly and is now favored to win a district that gave President Barack Obama 57 percent of the vote in 2012.

A graduate of the University of Redlands, Aguilar worked in then-Gov. Gray Davis’ Riverside office after college and then for a credit union for eight years before starting his own public affairs firm.

He was appointed to the Redlands City Council in 2006 and was elected to full terms in 2007 and 2012. He was appointed mayor by his colleagues on the council.

There is no reason to believe Aguilar will be anything but a loyal Democrat who will toe the party line on everything from immigration to taxes and spending. But there is no doubt in my mind that he will disagree with Republican members without being disagreeable about it.

Aguilar’s tone is measured, and he does not sound like someone who would pour gasoline on a politically explosive situation. He seems to believe he has a lot to learn, and he can learn things from future colleagues on both sides of the aisle. The Rothenberg Political Report rates this race as Leans Democratic.

Republican nominee Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania’s 6th District has a lot in common with Aguilar.

Costello, 37, was elected township supervisor when he was still in law school at Villanova. Like Aguilar, Costello is personable and became politically active at an early age. He was appointed to the Chester County commission in 2011 and elected to a full term that November. Now he is the clear favorite to win retiring Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach’s Southeastern Pennsylvania seat.

Costello is well informed about races around the country, and his political instincts are sharp.

The county commissioner is a pragmatic conservative who clearly sees himself in the Gerlach/Pat Meehan/Charlie Dent tradition of the GOP. A Mitt Romney delegate to the 2012 GOP national convention, he will be someone who can and will work with his party’s leadership and who is willing to negotiate with Democrats to address the nation’s interest.

Costello faces Democrat Manan Trivedi in the fall. Trivedi, a physician, is making his third straight run for Congress, but this effort isn’t likely to be any more successful than his previous bids (even though the seat is open this time). The Rothenberg Political Report rates this race Leans Republican.

The last of my three interviews that day was with Republican Tom MacArthur, the GOP nominee in New Jersey’s 3rd District, which will be open because Republican Rep. Jon Runyan isn’t seeking re-election.

I had watched MacArthur’s race from afar, intrigued by the fact that two county Republican organizations that can’t seem to agree on anything, Burlington County and Ocean County, had somehow agreed that he was the right guy for the job — especially considering that his main residence was in Morris County, in Northern New Jersey.

Though he was endorsed by both county organizations, MacArthur was forced to defeat conservative firebrand Steve Lonegan in a primary.

Democrats generally portray MacArthur as a carpetbagger — it’s funny how parties don’t mind recruiting a strong candidate of their own who doesn’t live in a district but attack the opposition when it recruits one — and focus on his wealth.

After a stint at the large insurance company AIG, he and his partners bought York Risk Services and turned it into a large company that they eventually sold for $500 million. After that, he ran for local office, in Randolph, in Morris County.

MacArthur, 53, is wealthy — he has already put $3 million of his own money into the race and will put more — but he doesn’t look or sound like some Wall Street wheeler-dealer.

He wasn’t at all pompous, phony or smug. He didn’t try to hide anything or even deflect questions. I found him to be very open and straightforward. Like many, he has an interesting personal story, and he has been active in philanthropy. He is quite likable.

Like Pennsylvanian Costello, MacArthur is a pragmatic conservative. He isn’t part of the “I hate government” crowd, but he also thinks that government’s role should be limited. If he wins in November, he should fit in nicely as a member of the Main Street Partnership, the pragmatic Republican group that often opposes the Club for Growth and tea party groups.

MacArthur will face Burlington County Freeholder Aimee Belgard, a Democrat, in the fall. The district is competitive, though it leans slightly Republican, and the midterm dynamic should help MacArthur. Still, he is in a serious fight, and of the three hopefuls I interviewed on the 16th, he has the toughest road to victory. The Rothenberg Political Report rates this race Tossup/Tilts Republican.