6 Democratic House Candidates With Plenty of Potential

by Stuart Rothenberg October 30, 2013 · 9:58 AM EDT

In this political environment, not having an extensive legislative record can be an asset. Not surprisingly then, three of six Democratic House candidates I interviewed recently have never before sought elective office, and a fourth was elected as a judge, not a legislator. (I will discuss a seventh Democratic hopeful, Martha Robertson, in a separate column.)

Considered as a group, the half-dozen hopefuls deserve to be mentioned in any discussion of Democratic House takeover opportunities in 2014. The only question is how many of them will continue to be in the conversation one year from today.

The least political of the bunch, former Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon, is also the least polished. And it’s that non-politician quality that could attract voters looking for a change from the conservative incumbent, Republican Rep. Dan Benishek.

Cannon, the Michigan 1st District hopeful who is 65, spent years in law enforcement and in the National Guard, and he presents himself as a “pro-life,” “strong national defense guy” who is “very conservative fiscally.” He’s down to earth, easy to underestimate and not particularly eloquent.

If he wins, Cannon will be one of those backbenchers you’ll overlook unless he bolts his party on a key vote. He probably wouldn’t be a strong challenger to a savvy, well-established incumbent — but neither of those qualities describes Benishek, which makes this a top-tier race worth watching.

John Lewis, running in Montana’s at-large district (which is expected to be an open-seat race after Republican Rep. Steve Daines declares for the Senate), would make a terrific neighbor. Low-key, easy to talk to and taking pains to point out that he won’t be able to change Washington single-handedly, the 35-year-old worked for Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’ Capitol Hill office before returning to Montana in 2008. For the past four years, he has been the senator’s state director.

The challenger notes his differences with the White House on issues including cutting the number of nuclear warheads — because of the impact on jobs in the state — and promises to be “independent” if elected. But because he has been working for a Washington officeholder, Lewis doesn’t start with a completely clean slate. His prospects for next year depend on the strength of the eventual GOP nominee.

Democrats tried to recruit Ann Callis to run for Congress in Illinois in 2012, but failed. This time, she is in, and the former county court judge (she resigned to run for Congress) presents herself as a tough on crime pragmatist with a record of public service and accomplishment.

Like Cannon, Callis, 49, looks like a strong challenger, in part because she lacks a voting record and is running in competitive district. She will face freshman GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, assuming that he wins his primary.

But Republicans surely will try to brand Callis as a “national Democrat” in the mold of President Barack Obama, and her critics will make an issue of her service in Madison County, with its reputation as a haven for trial lawyers and personal injury law suits. She takes credit for trying to change the county’s reputation.

I wasn’t very optimistic about meeting with Democratic National Committeewoman Erin Bilbray-Kohn. Bilbray — she has dropped the Kohn part for the campaign — is the daughter of former Rep. James Bilbray, D-Nev., and I have not always found the children of former members of Congress to be the best and the brightest. (Former Florida Rep. Connie Mack — the son — may well have permanently poisoned the well for me in this area.)

Bilbray, who is challenging GOP Rep. Joe Heck in Nevada’s 3rd District, has a long political and very partisan résumé. She is a member of the Democratic National Committee and founder of Emerge Nevada, which trains women to run for office. She worked with Team Hillary in 2008 and currently runs the political operation for Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

She did not do well when interviewed by Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston on his TV show.

But when I interviewed her (before her TV appearance with Ralston), I found the 44-year-old Democrat to be personable, energetic and engaging, which isn’t a bad thing for a politician. She reminded me of now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The question is whether that’s enough, given Bilbray’s partisan background and generic Democratic attacks on Heck. Moreover, it’s not clear that Heck, whose voting record is relatively moderate, is all that weak.

The two “politicians” I interviewed were very different from each other.

Pam Byrnes, who is challenging GOP Rep. Tim Walberg in Michigan’s 7th District, was refreshingly blunt. She had no problem joking about the fact that she lost each of her first four bids for office, and she understands that Walberg will make an issue of her service in the state House and tie her to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat whose ineffective two terms paved the way for a Republican governor in 2010. I liked her and expect her to give Walberg problems.

Byrnes, 66, struck me as a pretty generic Democrat, except that she acknowledges that she is “open” to educational reform. In fact, the Michigan Education Association endorsed her opponent in a 2010 Democratic state Senate primary, which Byrnes lost.

Jennifer Garrison, who is challenging Rep. Bill Johnson in Ohio’s 6th District, is an attorney who served three terms in the state House, where she was widely seen as a conservative Democrat, particularly on social issues. That’s a good place for a Democrat to start in this district. She has been supported in the past by the National Rifle Association and Ohio Right to Life. The 51-year-old Democrat once favored defining marriage as between a man and a woman but says that her views have evolved and now supports civil unions.

More tight-lipped and cautious when answering questions, she could benefit from relationships built when she started an organization of oil, gas and mineral rights landowners, and from her years of negotiating contracts on their behalf. But Romney carried the district by more than 9 points, and the president’s “war on coal” could still be a significant problem for Garrison.

All of these Democrats could win. And all of them could lose. But all certainly merit watching to see how their contests develop over the next year.