Martin Frost: Try Again

The recent news that my friend Judy Feder was going to run again for Congress against Republican incumbent Frank Wolf, R-Va., in northern Virginia points out that perseverance is one of the most important qualities for anyone who aspires to public office.

To be elected, you have to be a risk-taker and you have to be willing to lose an early race. There is no guarantee Judy will win this second race but she is following in the footsteps of some very interesting people.

Let’s start with the author of this column. I ran for Congress for the first time in 1974 against an incumbent Democratic congressman, Dale Milford, in the Democratic primary. I lost by a margin of 58-42.

Four years later I made a second race against the same incumbent and won 55-45. Losing was painful but, like so many before and after me, I picked myself up off the floor and tried again.

Let’s examine some other well-known office holders and their early experiences in elected politics.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) lost races for Congress in 1974 and 1976 before he was finally elected in 1978. Republican Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison lost a race for Congress from Dallas in 1982. She was elected state treasurer and later elected to the U.S. Senate in 1993.

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) badly lost a race for Congress from Chicago in 2000 against the Democratic incumbent, Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). Obama then went on to be elected to the Senate in 2004.

Four current freshman Democrats -- Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) — lost races for Congress in 2004 and came back to defeat the same Republican incumbent in 2006. A fifth freshman, Joe Courtney (C-Conn.), lost a race for Congress in 2002 and came back to defeat the same Republican incumbent in 2006.

There also are some very famous examples of how an early unsuccessful race for Congress did not ruin promising political careers.

In 1972, young Vietnam War veteran John Kerry lost a race for Congress in Massachusetts. He later was elected Massachusetts lieutenant governor and U.S. senator.

In 1974, the year I first ran for Congress, a young Arkansas lawyer, Bill Clinton, lost a race for Congress. He later was elected state attorney general, governor and president.

In 1978, the year I first was elected to Congress, a young man in West Texas, George W. Bush, lost a race for Congress. He later was elected governor and president.

As mentioned earlier, there is no guarantee that a second race will be successful.

In 1994, Republican Ed Harrison ran against me for Congress in Texas. That was a terrible year for Democrats nationally (we lost control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years) and Harrison received 47 percent of the vote. He ran again in 1996 and did much worse. His first race turned out to be an aberration because of the negative political climate against Democrats.

There are countless other examples of candidates failing in a second race; however, it is not that uncommon for someone to come back and win the second time.

Candidates running a second time after losing an initial race face numerous obstacles. First, they have to convince their family that running again and facing the possible embarrassment of losing again is worth the risk. Not all spouses are willing to indulge their partner’s political fantasy repeatedly without results.

Secondly, they have to convince their financial supporters that victory is possible. You can’t run a race on a shoestring these days and have a realistic chance of winning. People must be willing to contribute a second time and candidates must go out and find new sources of support also.

Third, they must overcome press skepticism that they will lose again. The press is inclined to believe that almost all incumbents get re-elected. Since many of the candidates running a second time are facing incumbents (rather than running in an open seat), the candidate must convince the local and national press that he or she has a real chance the second time around.

And finally, the candidate must convince himself that victory is possible. When I lost in 1974, I was discouraged and emotionally “down” for months. I didn’t know if I would ever run again. And then something dramatic happened -- my wife, Helaine, died of cancer at age 30. Following her death, I decided I did not want to wake up 20 or 30 years later wondering what would have happened if I had run again. I wanted to know.

The mental toughness and drive needed to make a second race after you lose are no small matters. The successful candidates often are the ones who posses these qualities.

So when Judy Feder or someone else who lost in 2006 asks for your support, don’t blow them off as “losers.” Hear them out. They should be applauded for being willing to lay it all on the line one more time.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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