The Hard-to-Get Democrats Who Finally Said Yes

The party has landed House candidates they’ve wanted for years thanks in part to the potential for a favorable political climate.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly speaks at a news conference accompanied by Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, left, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, on March 31, 2015, in Chicago.
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Aug. 7, 2017, 8 p.m.

Brendan Kelly can’t count the number of times that Democrats asked him to run for Congress in the four years since Jerry Costello retired.

The Navy veteran and state’s attorney who has waged fights against pharmaceutical companies and big banks has long topped Democrats’ recruitment wish list for the southwestern Illinois seat, now held by Republican Rep. Mike Bost.

While Kelly was flattered by the requests, he wasn’t interested until witnessing the first several months of 2017.

“I’ve tried to fight the good fight as a prosecutor,” he said, citing his work on criminal justice and public safety. “But I have found that I keep hitting a wall because of the larger problems that can only be solved by people showing some courage in Congress.”

Democrats are fielding a record number of candidates this cycle, including dozens of political newcomers spurred to action by the election of President Trump and the possibility of a favorable political climate. Also among the challengers are a handful of top-tier local public servants, like Kelly, who had rebuffed past entreaties to run in battleground seats in Virginia, New York, Florida, and Illinois.

This subset of recruits, wielding gold-plated resumes, enter as Democratic primary front-runners and instantly upgrade the competitiveness of a general election.

“They know it’s going to be a good year for Democrats, and who wants to run in a year in which your prospects are dim?” said Rep. Denny Heck of Washington, who leads recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Kelly will challenge Bost, who was reelected by 15 points last year in a district that President Obama won twice. The seat has trended Republican recently, but Democrats believe that Bost is vulnerable.

In Virginia’s 2nd District, state Sen. Lynwood Lewis said it took about two days to rule out a run last cycle in a less-inviting environment. “Frankly at the time I did not think the political dynamics were going to support a Democratic campaign here,” he said.

He declined once again in January when recruiters asked him to consider a bid, but he found himself reevaluating in May when the “craziness that’s going on in Washington” showed no signs of abating. He is now seriously weighing a run against freshman Republican Rep. Scott Taylor, with a final decision expected next month.

Democrats are thrilled by the prospect of Lewis’s candidacy, describing him as a strong retail campaigner who proved his political fortitude by winning a competitive state Senate special election by 9 votes in 2014 and then trouncing his opponent by 19 points the following year.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez is running for a South Florida-based House seat that he passed on last cycle, in part to stand up “to a White House that just doesn’t seem to want to govern.”

Rodriguez said his “call to serve has absolutely a lot to do with the Trump administration,” though his calculus was made simpler by the retirement of GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami institution who won by 10 points in a district that Trump lost by 20 points last year. He is among the leaders in a crowded primary.

A similarly full Democratic field didn’t stop the national party from securing their top choice in a competitive Northern Virginia district held by Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock. Multiple Democrats had already declared when state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, who was also recruited last cycle, entered the race in April.

A prosecutor who made a name for herself through high-profile murder and abuse trials, Wexton’s legislative district overlaps considerably with the congressional boundaries. In an interview about why she chose to run this time, Wexton cited the prospect of helping the Democrats win back the House.

“I know that in order to do that we need to be as competitive as possible in the 10th Congressional District, so I have stepped up,” she said, describing herself as the only candidate in the Democratic primary to currently hold elected office.

Crowded primaries could pose a problem for Democrats in these districts, particularly if their preferred candidates emerge with high negatives and a depleted war chest, veer too far to the left in a bruising intraparty battle, or miss out on the general election entirely.

“When these candidates declared, little did they know they’d be stuck debating single-payer health care and whether or not they support Nancy Pelosi with multiple primary opponents,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Meanwhile, Democrats have had less success courting long-sought-after candidates in other districts. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, a potential challenger for Rep. John Faso of New York, announced Thursday that he would sit out the race, leaving Democrats without a big name in a wide field. In a neighboring upstate seat, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has hinted at statewide ambitions, perhaps making it less likely that she chooses to take on Rep. John Katko.

Still, Democrats feel good about the candidates who said yes. Kelly’s entrance into Illinois’s 12th District prompted The Cook Political Report to alter its race rating in favor of Democrats. It did the same for Virginia’s 2nd with Lewis as a potential challenger, and in New York’s 22nd when Democrats finally landed Anthony Brindisi, a well-liked assemblyman with an independent streak.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made a rare foray into House recruiting to draft Brindisi, padding the legislator’s liberal bona fides. But Brindisi is also known to bash the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and boasts top marks from the National Rifle Association—a good fit for a swing seat that twice split evenly between Obama and his GOP opponents.

“He’s forever been on the list,” Heck said, calling Brindisi a perfect candidate. “We just had never gotten anywhere with him until this year.”

In an interview, Brindisi said he would not have challenged moderate Republican Richard Hanna. He also passed when the seat opened last cycle but changed course this year after observing freshman Rep. Claudia Tenney, Hanna’s successor.

“Given what is happening across the country and specifically our current representative’s lack of attention to the district, I felt that I could not sit on the sidelines this time around,” Brindisi said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the story originally misstated Jerry Costello’s political party. He is a Democrat.

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