The Long Lost Tale of Phil Maloof

by Stuart Rothenberg May 22, 2014 · 9:38 AM EDT

Most readers know that Nathan Gonzales and I, along with our friends from Roll Call, interview at least 150 candidates for Congress every election cycle. I have been doing it for many years.

Not every hopeful passes through our offices, of course, and many candidates have won elections without ever subjecting themselves to an interview. There is no ring that needs kissing here.

But many candidates seem to think that it’s something they should, or even want to, do. A young Illinois legislator named Barack Obama came by twice. House candidates Paul D. Ryan and Kirsten Gillibrand came in for interviews, as did Senate hopefuls John Edwards, Ted Cruz and Erskine Bowles. I have interviewed both long shots and prohibitive favorites, candidates who looked like winners and those who didn’t.

I have interviewed so many hopefuls that when a candidate doesn’t come by, especially if there has been some buzz about the him or her being sheltered and not doing many interviews with seasoned political reporters, I invariably think of Phil Maloof.

Maloof, a member of a wealthy and influential family with interests in sports, gaming, entertainment and beer distribution, was a state senator in New Mexico when he ran for Congress in 1998.

New Mexico Republican Rep. Steve Schiff died far too young at 51, and Maloof, a Democrat, and Republican Heather Wilson battled in a June special election for the right to fill the rest of Schiff’s term. They had a November election rematch.

The race was competitive, though Republicans had held the Albuquerque district for years, with Schiff and before him Manuel Lujan Jr. (Trivia alert: Schiff won an open congressional seat in 1988, beating Democrat Tom Udall, currently New Mexico’s senior senator. Udall had also run for Congress, unsuccessfully, in 1982.)

Wilson, who had an impressive military career before accepting a high-level position in state government, came in for an interview. A graduate of the Air Force Academy and a Rhodes Scholar who had earned a doctorate in international relations from Oxford, she was smart but stiff. I wondered whether she would connect with voters.

According to CQ’s Politics in America 2000, Maloof, who lost the special election by 5 points and the regular election by a bit more, spent $8 million on the two races — more than three times what Wilson spent. But he never came in for an interview, in spite of my pleas to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to send him my way “the next time he is in D.C.”

I found out after the election that his absence was no mere accident. The DCCC didn’t want me to meet him. They figured that he wouldn’t do very well in an interview.

I recently checked some old newspaper clippings and chuckled at a June 25, 1998, story by then-Roll Call reporter Rachel Van Dongen. She wrote that, after one debate, “Maloof was criticized for reading directly from notes or failing to answer the moderator’s question.”

Then I noted a June 22, 1998, Ceci Connolly piece in The Washington Post in which she wrote that Wilson hammered Maloof “as a rich kid lacking in the intellectual heft to be in Congress.” The National Republican Congressional Committee furthered that “lightweight” image in frequent press releases.

Since I never saw Maloof, I can’t comment on his heft. But the reviews were not good. One Democrat involved in that race recently acknowledged to me that Maloof wasn’t a great debater, but also put some of the blame on his strategists.

“He was young. He was privileged. But on the other hand, he was a sincere, sweet person. He was over-managed. The people around him were overly protective of him,” the Democrat said.

Anyway, when politicians like Democratic Senate hopefuls Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Republican Senate candidates Terri Lynn Land in Michigan and Mike McFadden in Minnesota don’t come in for interviews, I think of Maloof and wonder.

Grimes has received ink for allegedly ducking interviews. One Democratic insider recently insisted to me that Grimes is articulate and able to talk about policy.

Nunn is often described as being smart and impressive, but I’ve heard some more negative evaluations of her candidate skills, including a report that she hesitates to take positions and is extremely cautious.

Land’s campaign seems to send me emails hourly and she has been hyped by many Republicans, but I’ve had my doubts. Those doubts were recently heightened when one person who has met her said Land “is so not ready for prime time that it’s amazing.”

As for McFadden, I get plenty of emails from him too, telling me that he is going to defeat Democratic Sen. Al Franken, but I have not met him. At least he has an excuse: He is still fighting for the GOP nomination.

Grimes, Nunn, Land and McFadden are all running in difficult states. All things being equal, Kentucky and Georgia voters prefer Republicans for federal office, just as Michigan and Minnesota voters prefer Democrats. So, my guess is that the four candidates are trying to hide as much as possible and as long as possible so that they can avoid — or at least delay — answering tough questions about issues and, in the cases of Grimes and Nunn, about the president.

Of course, all four could turn out to be great candidates. I still hope to interview them. But ducking reporters is nothing new. It’s often a strategy for candidates who have something to hide, whether it’s their positions or something else.