Good Candidates for House Come in All Shapes and Sizes

June 23, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Every election cycle, I meet a lot of candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives. Some, in fact many, have more liabilities than assets. But some actually impress me. This column is about four of them, and I’d advise keeping an eye on each at least until November.

Gregg Harper (R), Mississippi’s 3rd district. An attorney and former Rankin County Republican chairman, Harper, 52, did what many candidates promise to do but, in fact, don’t. He put together a successful grass-roots campaign.

With one of his primary opponents flush with money and the other a well-known state Senator who had the governor’s media consultant at his disposal, Harper was the long-shot Republican hopeful with little cash and no district-wide recognition.

But his years toiling in Republican political vineyards — whether working in phone banks for a Mississippi GOP candidate in 1978, serving as a Republican observer of the Florida recount in 2000 or working as a legal volunteer for President Bush’s campaign in Ohio in 2004 — paid off.

Harper is straightforward, astute and earnest. It’s clear that he is an extremely hard worker, and that people who meet him are willing to go to work to help him. That’s a very good sign.

In a rarity these days, Harper refused to use negative information about one of his opponents. But don’t think Gregg Harper is politically naive. He isn’t. And he will win the open seat in November.

Betsy Markey (D), Colorado’s 4th district. If I were Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R), I’d be very, very worried about challenger Markey.

Before moving to Colorado in the 1990s, Markey spent much of her time in and around the nation’s capital, whether working on Capitol Hill for then-Rep. Herb Harris (D-Va.), in graduate school at American University, as a presidential management fellow working in the Treasury and State departments, or as a businesswoman living and working with her husband in the Maryland suburbs.

In Fort Collins, she briefly owned a coffee shop. She became Larimer County Democratic chairman in 2002 and then was hired by Sen. Ken Salazar (D) to be his regional director for northern and eastern Colorado, the part of the state in which she is running for Congress.

Unlike many candidates, Markey, 52, doesn’t sound like some robot regurgitating talking points and refusing to answer questions that might put her in an awkward position. She actually responded to questions only after listening to them and thinking about them. Amazing!

The Colorado Democrat is articulate and personable. I’m convinced she’ll run a solid campaign and prove to be an appealing alternative to Musgrave, who clearly has not bonded with a majority in the GOP-leaning district.

Erik Paulsen (R), Minnesota’s 3rd district. I wouldn’t say my interview with Erik Paulsen went well. I’d say it was spectacular. His response to a question on immigration policy was the single best answer that I have ever received — and I’ve certainly asked the same question to at least 100 other candidates.

Holding a degree in mathematics from St. Olaf College, Paulsen initially used his math background to work as a financial analyst for a cable TV shopping channel. But after a brief internship in the St. Paul office of then-Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) and a short stint as a field representative in Boschwitz’s re-election campaign, Paulsen opted for politics over the business world.

He eventually worked in a couple of capacities for Rep. Jim Ramstad (R), including as state director, before winning an open state legislative seat at the age of 29.

Paulsen, 43, is sharp, articulate and politically savvy without seeming overly ambitious or arrogant. He clearly thinks about policy and can talk about it without being boring or long-winded. He is one of the more politically appealing candidates that I have interviewed.

I haven’t met Paulsen’s Democratic opponent yet, so I can’t handicap his chances completely. But Paulsen definitely gives Republicans a strong nominee in their effort to hold a shaky open House seat.

Kathy Dahlkemper (D), Pennsylvania’s 3rd district. I’m not sure if Dahlkemper is quite in the same class with the other three candidates I’ve already mentioned, but, given her lack of political experience, she clearly has what it takes to be a top-tier challenger to Rep. Phil English (R).

A dietician by training, Dahlkemper, 50, joined her husband’s business, Dahlkemper Landscape Architects & Contractors, in 1997. The family business has been in Erie since 1955, and the Dahlkemper name is well-known and highly regarded in the area.

Dahlkemper’s other claim is that she co-founded the Lake Erie Arboretum. But when it comes to campaigns, she is a neophyte. That probably explains why she seemed to rely more on talking points than Paulsen or Markey.

But the Democrat scores well on sincerity, and she acts like your neighbor rather than a career politician. And unlike Markey, who has EMILY’s List support, Dahlkemper is a pro-life Democrat in a district with plenty of conservative Democrats.

A likable, articulate, common-sense citizen-politician, Dahlkemper has the tough job of trying to upset veteran English, who co-authored legislation that recently passed the House to extend unemployment benefits. She certainly is the underdog in the race, but English would be wise not to underestimate her appeal.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 19, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.