Think You Can Be a Political Handicapper?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 28, 2011 · 11:49 AM EDT

After meeting and interviewing Missouri Republican Congressional candidate Ann Wagner on Monday, I had the opportunity the following day to interview nine Democratic House candidates in less than four hours — the political version of speed dating.

Yes, national party strategists set up the interviews with the nine Democratic hopefuls (out of more than 100 candidates who were in town), and they probably weren’t going to let me interview a bunch of duds, at least not at this point in the cycle.

Still, it’s worth noting that while each of the candidates had his or her strengths and weaknesses, I could easily imagine any or all of them winning next year. Here is my quick reaction to the first five candidates I interviewed:

Ann Wagner (Missouri’s 2nd district). Articulate, poised, polished and extremely well-funded, Wagner is certainly a top-tier candidate. She is in a competitive primary with Ed Martin, who ran against Rep. Russ Carnahan (D) last time. The winner of the GOP primary could face Carnahan if he runs again, though it isn’t yet clear he will, given the more Republican nature of the district after redistricting. The seat is open on the Republican side because Rep. Todd Akin is running for Senate.

Wagner will likely be characterized by Martin as the “establishment,” since she is a former Missouri GOP chairwoman, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and a one-time ambassador to Luxembourg (appointed by George W. Bush). She has also been endorsed by almost every big-name Republican inside and outside the state.

However, in my interview with Wagner, she not only emphasized her conservative credentials, but she also made it clear that she won’t let anyone run to her right. Genghis Khan couldn’t get to her right.

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that she is quite the “no compromise” conservative that she insists she is. But there is no doubt that Wagner will be a formidable candidate for Congress. Actually, I think she probably would be a better candidate against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) than anyone currently in the GOP Senate field.

Gary McDowell (Michigan’s 1st district). A former longtime county commissioner who served six years in the Michigan Legislature, McDowell lost a 2010 open-seat contest to Republican Dan Benishek.

McDowell positions himself as a pro-gun, pro-life Democrat who is close to organized labor, and he criticizes the Congressman’s votes for the Ryan budget and for free-trade agreements, which he says will cost jobs. Not too slick, he appears to fit the district well.

But the Democratic hopeful seems to think that he can run a purely local race in 2012. That strategy clearly failed for Congressional candidates in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and it doesn’t look to be much more effective in 2012.

McDowell clearly became uncomfortable when asked whether he would commit to voting for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Speaker should he get elected, ultimately saying that he would not “make a commitment” on how he would vote. He’ll need to hope that President Barack Obama can place a good deal of the blame for the economy on the Republican Congress.

Still, this is a competitive district, and Benishek better take the Democratic challenger very seriously.

Christie Vilsack (Iowa’s 4th district). The wife of the current secretary of Agriculture (and the former governor of Iowa), Vilsack is something of a celebrity in Democratic circles and has already been recommended by EMILY’s List. She had raised $760,000 at the end of September but had spent $213,000, leaving her with $547,000 on hand.

Her GOP opponent, Rep. Steve King, is widely regarded as one of the most conservative Members of Congress, and his redrawn district includes a great deal of new territory, including some less conservative areas.

Naturally, I was excited to meet Vilsack, given her reputation. I found a candidate who is serious, measured in her responses and on message. I also found a candidate who would not take a position on whether she would have supported the Obama health care bill; the Colombia, South Korea and Panama free-trade agreements; or raising the debt ceiling. Her response each time was that she wasn’t in Congress so she didn’t have to decide how to vote. (In frustration, I jokingly asked her about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and received the same sort of response.)

Instead, Vilsack took any and every opportunity to highlight local issues and noncontroversial ideas that could help folks in the district. She wants more apprenticeships. She wants to offer tax credits to landowners who sell land to returning veterans. She wants to repair the nation’s infrastructure.

So, what I got was a classic rope-a-dope strategy on big, ideological issues — the kind of issues that people often use to characterize candidates. To me, that screamed out, “I’m a liberal, but I don’t want voters to know it, so I’ll couch everything in local and noncontroversial terms.” We’ll see whether voters have that same reaction.

It’s not a terrible strategy if Vilsack can pull it off in the general election. Certainly she has a decent chance of knocking off King if she can make the election about him rather than about Obama or the national Democratic agenda. The question is whether she can do it.

Jamie Wall (Wisconsin’s 8th district). Wall last ran for Congress in 2006, coming in second to Steve Kagen in a Democratic primary. He waited until Kagen, who lost his seat in 2010, decided not to run again, getting into the race just two weeks ago.

Like the other hopefuls, Wall will try to localize his race. He believes he already has some good ammunition against Rep. Reid Ribble (R), whose name I haven’t heard anyone mention since he was elected last November.

Wall criticized Ribble for “voting to end Medicare and replace it with a voucher scheme” — an attack we will hear a lot of from Democrats this cycle — and he said that he would have voted to raise the debt ceiling, saying the consequences for not doing so would have been disastrous. Ribble voted for the final debt ceiling compromise.

Sal Pace (Colorado’s 3rd district). Though he was only elected in 2008, Pace is the Minority Leader in the Colorado House. He plans on challenging freshman Rep. Scott Tipton in a district expected to include both the Western Slope (of the Rockies) and Pueblo.

Pace wasn’t as slick or as programmed as many of the candidates I have interviewed, which is probably why I liked him so much. We will see whether he is too low-key.

He too talked about “localizing” the race, and he cites a number of “ethical” issues that he’ll raise about Tipton’s short tenure in Congress. But Pace will have to step up to win this competitive district. He acknowledges that he has never had a tough general election, and he comes from the district’s most Democratic area, Pueblo.

If Pace can get a strong Democratic turnout in Pueblo and sell himself as a moderate Democrat in the district’s more conservative areas, he certainly could be a very serious threat to Tipton. But he’ll have to run different races in different parts of the district.

That’s the rundown on the first five candidates. Next time, the rest of the bunch.