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Retread Congressional Candidate: A Liability Or An Asset For The Party?


In a year of extreme uncertainty due to the pandemic, voting for president may feel more consequential than ever. But one thing that is certain in 2020 is that Congress is going to be full of so-called retread candidates - in other words, candidates who have lost races before. And whether Biden or Trump wins the White House, both of their parties have numerous people running for the U.S. House and Senate who have election failures on their resumes. Nathan Gonzales recently wrote about this for CQ Roll Call, where he's an elections analyst. Nathan, welcome to the program.

NATHAN GONZALES: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: Nathan, when a candidate has lost before, sometimes that person's opponent will try to label them a loser, a has-been, damaged goods. But there's an argument to be made that someone who has previously lost a race is actually better experienced and better equipped to run again and maybe win the second time around. Have you found that being a retread candidate is generally seen as a liability or an asset?

GONZALES: Well, it's absolutely true that the adjective that you use for having a loss on your resume depends on whether the candidate is with your party or of the other party because the short answer is that it depends. The reason why some retread candidates are eventually successful later on is because it's difficult to run for Congress. I think we lose sight of the fact, when we treat politics like a sport in these campaigns, that it is hard. It's hard to build a network to raise money. It's hard to get known to voters and raise your name ID.

And so sometimes it can take multiple election cycles to put yourself in position in order to be a credible candidate or a credible alternative to the person that you're running against. So having a loss does not necessarily mean that you can't win a race later on down the line.

PFEIFFER: And it might also mean you just need a change of circumstance, a change of political environment, to make you more appealing.

GONZALES: Correct. You know, I've been covering races for almost 20 years now, to date myself. And, you know, sometimes good candidates lose because the national political environment or the political winds are working against them, and sometimes second- and third-tier candidates win because they have the political wind at their back. And so sometimes it takes multiple times to run in order to catch the right political environment.

PFEIFFER: And we should note, there are some very famous politicians who lost before they won. In your article, you mentioned Barack Obama. He falls in that category. He lost a Democratic primary challenge in the year 2000, but then he was elected to the Senate in 2004. And we all know where he went from there.

GONZALES: Right. That ended up working out OK for him.

PFEIFFER: It did (laughter).

GONZALES: We also might see - in the race for the White House. I mean, former Vice President Joe Biden lost two - has lost two previous races for the presidency. And he is, you know, in decent - at least in decent position to win in November.

PFEIFFER: We mentioned that you recently wrote about this issue. What got you looking into this phenomenon? For example, is this a year that's particularly notable for the number of retread candidates who are up for office?

GONZALES: I think I kept noticing the adjectives - the retread, the has-been, voters have rejected this candidate. And I started to realize that this was coming from both sides (laughter). And then I started to tabulate - OK, let's see how many of these candidates we're seeing. And on the House side, there are 14 Republican candidates who are running who have lost previously. Eight of them just lost two years ago. And 20 Democratic House candidates have losses on their resume, including 15 who just lost two years ago. And so that was the genesis of this.

And I'm sure that this cycle is not alone. Candidly, I'm not positive numerically how much this compares to other cycles. But losers have been running for years and eventually winning, you know, going back to at least Abraham Lincoln.

PFEIFFER: Are there specific races that jump out to you that are worth mentioning?

GONZALES: Well, the race in Montana is - it's an open seat. The current congressman is running for governor. And it's actually - we'll call it a double-loser race. The Democrat, Kathleen Williams, lost the House race two years ago. Now, the Republican nominee, Matt Rosendale, lost a U.S. Senate race two years ago to Democrat Jon Tester. So we know for sure that at least one loser is going to win because they both have losses on their resume there in Montana.

PFEIFFER: So there is some lesson there. You can be a loser without being a loser.

GONZALES: (Laughter) That's right. You can be a loser until you aren't.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) That's Nathan Gonzales. He's an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call and publisher of Inside Elections. Thank you.

GONZALES: Thank you Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.