That first night, back in 2011, Farris had hoped to get as far as Nashville. But after only 10 miles, his head was spinning and tears were flowing, and he pulled over. A couple of years had passed since he had played his final game in the National Football League, and this next step was daunting. All he could think was, “What am I doing with my life?”
Since he could run, Farris had been a football player. He played wide receiver at a small college and spent six seasons in the NFL, including two with the Washington Redskins. His career wasn’t spectacular — Farris played in only six games as a Redskin — but coaches appreciated that Farris treated practices like playoff games. The average professional football career lasts just 3½ seasons, which means guys like Farris must seek a new life much earlier than they’d prefer. Farris was only 30 when his playing career ended in 2009.
“You train your whole life for this one thing. You give it everything you have — eat, breathe, sleep, everything,” he said. “Then, one day, it’s like someone knocks on your door and says, ‘Thanks for all you’ve done, but you can never do that again.’ ”
He had never been particularly interested in politics. He ran for student government in the eighth grade (and lost). He didn’t vote in a single election until Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. Obama’s candidacy stirred something in Farris — the hope, the optimism, the relentless drive. They were the very attributes that fueled his football career, and Farris thought maybe he, too, could make a difference.
While living in Atlanta and dabbling in sports broadcasting, Farris began calling people in Idaho, inquiring about the political scene back home. He eventually connected with Larry Grant, chairman of Idaho’s Democratic Party. The two talked about seats in the state legislature, but Farris’s ambitions were much bigger.
“When was the last time your coach told you to hold back?” Grant asked.
“Never,” Farris said.
“Okay, then let’s run you for Congress.”
And that’s how Farris found himself behind the steering wheel late one night last September, the lights along Interstate 75 blurry through his tears. He pulled into a hotel and called his mom and two sisters. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he told them.
Farris was the youngest of five, and his family had always been supportive. His mother, Sharon Farris, once called Jim L. Mora, pleading with the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach to give her son more playing time.
He wasn’t the most athletic kid in Lewiston, Idaho, but he had starred on his high school team, earning All-State honors and helping win a state championship. He accepted the only scholarship offer he had — to the University of Montana — and became a Division I-AA all-American. He wasn’t drafted into the NFL but signed a free-agent contract and eventually earned a Super Bowl championship ring with the New England Patriots. When others might have quit, Farris always kept grinding.
Once, when the Redskins had to open a roster spot during the 2005 season, Coach Joe Gibbs decided he had no choice but to release Farris. When Gibbs’s longtime assistant, Cindy Mangum, heard the news, she stormed into his office.
“You cut Jimmy Farris? Are you kidding?” she told the Hall of Fame coach. “I watch him every day in practice, and he’s the most dedicated player we got!”
“I certainly wasn’t happy about doing it,” Gibbs recalled. “I mean, we’re probably talking about one of my favorite guys. Jimmy made the absolute most out of everything he had — totally dedicated as a worker, totally dedicated as a team guy. He was always willing to sacrifice his own individual goals for the goals of the team.”
Farris hoped that some of the same attributes that earned him a pro football career might punch his ticket to Capitol Hill. Although Congress is filled predominantly with lawyers and business owners, four pro football players have won election, including current lawmakers Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.). Former congressmen Jack Kemp and Steve Largent, both Republicans, had distinguished playing careers.
When Farris called his mom and sisters from the hotel, they assured him there was no shame in abandoning his plan, but they all knew he wasn’t about to turn around. The next morning, Farris loaded Caesar into the car and continued on the road. Four days later he crossed the Idaho border.
Farris stayed at his brother’s house, sleeping in his niece’s tiny bed and plotting the first steps of a congressional campaign. When he finally found a house to rent outside of Boise, he spent a month with just an air mattress, a coffeemaker and a laptop before his furniture arrived from Atlanta. He’d pass hours inside the empty home scouring news Web sites, studying issues and trying to articulate his beliefs. Ideologically, Farris says he “plays between the 40s” — football parlance, meaning he’s near midfield — though he endorses most of the Democratic platform.
Last October, Farris announced his unlikely candidacy for Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat, challenging a Republican incumbent in one of the reddest states in the union. He launched a campaign that aimed to answer big-picture questions — Have people tired of the tea party’s way of doing business? Could President Obama’s quest for reelection help the Democrats regain House seats lost two years earlier? Is there any place on the electoral stage for an idealist with no political experience and even less cash? — but also smaller questions, more intimate ones.
If Farris was no longer a football player, then who exactly was he? In addition to formulating a vision for Idaho and for the country, Farris had to remake his own concept of self — and sell it all to voters in real-time.
“Nothing with Jimmy will ever surprise me,” said his high school coach, Nick Menegas. “How many 10-year-olds say they’ll be the best wide receiver on their high school team? How many 10-year-olds say they’ll play in college? In the NFL? So when he called me and said he wants to get in politics, well, I just assume he’ll be president one day.”
Still trying to find his footing as a political candidate, Jimmy Farris walked into the lobby of Lewiston’s KRLC-AM to tape an interview and was greeted by program director John Thomas.
“Nice to see you,” Thomas said. “I see you got the Western shirt, but where’s your cowboy boots? It’s weird to see an Idaho politician without cowboy boots.”
Indeed, very little about Farris fit the description of an Idaho politician. Even if he was a couple of pounds above his playing weight, Farris couldn’t disguise his boyish face. In a meeting at the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation, Chief Allan, the tribe’s chairman, asked Farris why he was still single. The candidate tried to explain he’d be married to his job.
Farris told Thomas he was staying true to who he is, and the two disappeared into a small studio. “Going back a little bit,” Thomas said into a microphone, “why did you decide for your first bid for elected office to shoot for a seat in Congress?”
“Everybody’s got their own path,” Farris told him. “And everybody, when they’re deciding to do something, such as run for office, you decide where you think you can make the biggest impact.”
After the interview, Farris bumped into an old high school friend in the lobby.
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
“Up here campaigning,” he said.
“Oh, really? For what?”
Farris’s optimism rarely wavers, but he walked out of the station dejected. “It’s just so eye-opening to me how many people don’t realize I’m running for Congress,” he lamented. “People I’ve known my whole life just haven’t heard about it yet. We haven’t done a good job getting word out.”
Idaho’s 1st Congressional District is one of the nation’s largest, spanning 500 miles from Nevada to Canada. In a traditionally red area, Farris knew he had to make the campaign personal. “Otherwise, they’ll just vote for whichever candidate has an R next to his name,” he said. The incumbent is Rep. Raul Labrador, a Puerto Rican-born Mormon lawyer who rode a wave of tea party support to unseat Democrat Walt Minnick in 2010.
But a lot has changed in two years. Barely one in 10 Americans approves of the job Congress is doing, according to polls. Though Obama has little chance of winning Idaho in November — in 2008, he won only three of Idaho’s 44 counties, faring worse in only three states. Farris is convinced his home state has suffered under a Republican-controlled Congress, and he spent much of his early days on the campaign trail vaguely talking about job growth and getting Idahoans back to work.
As in any political race, one key is money. The average victorious House candidate in 2010 paid $1.4 million to fund that winning campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and Farris quickly learned that fundraising dollars are not easy to come by in Idaho.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told him that if he raised $250,000 by the end of 2011, he would be included in the committee’s Red to Blue program, which would effectively put his race on the radar for PACs and donors. Competing against the holidays and poor name recognition, Farris raised barely $12,000.
But he did have an advantage most neophyte candidates don’t: He’d spent nearly a decade fraternizing with millionaires. So he tapped into his NFL Rolodex. What he learned early in his campaign is that athletes aren’t especially eager to throw money toward political candidates in Idaho. Three former teammates donated a total of $3,500, and he received $500 from Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
Adam Harris, a Houston consultant who had helped the Democrats win the 1st District seat in 2008, and Heather Langhorst, a successful fundraiser, were advising Farris. And he spent time in the town of Worley, going through a Politics 101 crash course at the home of Jeanne Buell, the state party’s vice chair. Farris’s frustration and inexperience were both evident.
“You thought this was going to be easy?” Buell told him. “They’d hear you were running for Congress and just start writing checks?”
The truth was that a lot of Idaho Democrats were disillusioned. Excited by Obama and the slate of Democrats, they had showed up in strong numbers in 2008, but 15,000 of those voters stayed home two years later, according to party leaders. From his rental home in Meridian, Farris would spend hours going through a list of potential donors, but every fundraising call began to sound the same. In frustration, Farris hung up after yet another fruitless call and told Langhorst that he was no longer interested in talking to people who didn’t think he had a chance.
Langhorst snapped back. “Well, at this point, that leaves only you.”
“I just couldn’t get through to him that he actually had to sell himself,” she explained later. “A lot of people wanted to give their advice. I couldn’t combat all that. What I needed him to do was sit in a room, make phone calls all day and listen to what I said.”
By Christmas, the consultant and the fundraiser had both left the campaign. Farris was living off his modest savings. When he went to bed each night, Farris was unsure how he could wake up and continue. The winter proved to be “the worst months I’ve ever experienced.”
“This is not what a congressional campaign is supposed to look like,” he said.
On the day of Idaho’s primary election, Jimmy Farris woke up feeling good. He drove to a school and cast a vote for himself.
Originally, he wasn’t supposed to have had competition in the primary, but at the last minute, a 58-year-old named Cynthia Clinkingbeard entered the race. Farris had been excited by the prospects — he figured it was a chance to stir media interest and warm up for the November showdown with Labrador.
Within days, Clinkingbeard had entered a Staples office supply store to make campaign fliers, and after a disagreement with employees, police say she pulled a gun. She was charged with three felony counts of aggravated assault.
Clinkingbeard, a physician who has a history of bipolar disorder and lost her medical license in 2005, did not drop out. Farris consulted with party leaders, and they decided to ignore her, declining an invitation to a televised debate and opting against spending any money before the primary.
That evening he attended a gathering hosted by the state Democratic Party to watch the early returns. As the night wore on, Farris was alone wearing a dark suit and a stunned look. Unbelievably, he and Clinkingbeard were neck and neck.
As other Democratic candidates celebrated their good fortunes, Farris tried to understand how things had spun so wildly out of control. He’d spent the spring on the road. He’d hit multiple towns in a single day, excited and full of energy as he visited women’s groups, retired federal workers, senior citizens, college classes and Democratic clubs.
He had stopped at one house party in a town called Sandpoint, in a staunchly conservative area. Many attendees were closeted Democrats, saying their bosses would frown on liberal-leaning employees. A calendar hung on the fridge with the date circled, listing the scheduled speaker as “Johnny Farris.”
When everyone found a seat in the living room, the former state champion began to talk. As he often does, Farris passed his Super Bowl ring around the room. He didn’t wait long before citing Robert Draper’s recently released book about the dysfunction and obstructionism in the 112th Congress: “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.” (Farris hadn’t yet seen the book but had read news accounts.) Labrador was quoted telling the book’s author, “I didn’t come to Washington to be part of a team” — and Farris jumped on the opportunity to highlight how his sports career would translate to Capitol Hill.
“The United States Congress is probably the best example I can think of as a team,” Farris told the room. “One of the best examples of a need for teamwork. ... What I know how to do is work in a team setting. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. ... And anybody who says they don’t want to be a part of a team and work together with other people doesn’t belong there. ... No, you are part of the biggest, most important team in the country.”
By May he’d raised barely $27,000. Labrador had pulled in a half million.
On the night of the primary, it was clear that Farris hadn’t done nearly enough to build up his name recognition. He left the restaurant before midnight with a slim lead and drove home in silence, trying to understand where he’d gone wrong. Not debating a troubled woman? Not making enough fundraising phone calls? Abandoning his life in Atlanta?
Farris was in bed around 12:30 a.m., when Grant, the state party leader, called; Farris had officially survived the primary scare. Farris won with 53.2 percent of the vote — a margin of 639 Idahoans — and lost four of the five counties he had courted the hardest. Labrador, meanwhile, beat his primary opponent by more than 44,000 votes.
“It felt like everything we’d been doing was for naught,” Farris said. “I felt like I’d worked hard, had sacrificed a lot — and to barely win over a woman who announced her candidacy on the last possible day and then was arrested a week later — it’s embarrassing.”
Farris needed time to take stock of his campaign. He’d need a new campaign manager, his third. His campaign Web site looked homemade, and he still had no office space, lawn signs, television commercials, social media presence or money. All he really had was the same faith he started with in the fall.
“It’s like I’m standing in front of a big hole knowing that’s where your dream house is supposed to go,” Farris said. “But I don’t have an electrician, plumber, framer, sheetrock guy, roofer. I got nothing.”
When Larry LaRocco, a Democrat who held the 1st District seat from 1991 to 1995, called Farris the next morning, he offered a stern lecture and a pep talk. Farris started feeling better and before hanging up told LaRocco: “You know what. This is just the first half. We’ll make some halftime adjustments. I’ve always been better in the second half.”
One warm weekday, shortly after 1 p.m., Jimmy Farris burst into his campaign office — a modern-looking, sparsely decorated space in an office park that costs the campaign only $300 a month. He took immediate notice of that morning’s Idaho Statesman lying on a desk.
“That looks great,” he told Dave Scheppler, his latest campaign manager, tapping his index finger on the six-column headline stripped across the top of the newspaper’s front page: “Farris: Labrador missing too many votes.” The prominent display was a huge victory for Farris and his new staff.
In three months, Farris’s entire operation had been overhauled. A volunteer revamped the campaign’s Web site and took over social media responsibilities. Someone else put together a weekly e-mail newsletter. Farris spent $1,500 to record a 60-second commercial that he published on his site and hoped to unveil on TV. On the same day a union of electrical workers cut the campaign a $5,000 check, Farris agreed to contract with Washington-based Bulldog Finance Group to handle national fundraising at a cost of $5,000.
Perhaps most important, Farris persuaded Scheppler, 36, to take a pay cut from his sales job at T-Mobile, and added a recent college graduate to handle media relations. Together, they wrote three or four news releases each week. The latest focused on Labrador’s attendance record in the past year: The congressman had missed 4.7 percent of House votes, nearly double the median.
The Statesman ran with it, and the Farris campaign benefited from the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. It was the first time Farris had earned his way onto the front page.
“You ready to make some phone calls?” Scheppler asked. “Try to make some money?”
“Just let people know, ‘Hey, did you see the front page of the Statesman today?’ Stress that we’re showing Labrador has weaknesses, he’s vulnerable. It’s like, you can smell the blood in the water. This is a big deal. Now’s a good time to jump and get behind the campaign,” the campaign manager continued. “I would spin this, like, ‘The race officially started today.
“ ‘Now it’s time for the sprint to Election Day, and I need your help.’ ”
For Farris, the summer months were an endless stream of county fairs, rodeos and town parades. Every weekend was booked. The odometer on his BMW showed that he’d traveled 25,000 miles since declaring his candidacy the previous October.
“The issues have not changed,” he said. “My understanding of the finer points of those issues is better. My ability to see what’s important and how to articulate that is much better.”
Though still very much the underdog, Farris and the state party leaders had studied the math enough to plot an exact path to victory. There are 19 counties in his district. Based on historical voting, Farris was counting on 65,000 votes from 16 of them. He figured he’d need 90,000 from the other three — Ada, Canyon, Kootenai — similar to Minnick’s performance in 2008 when he became the first Democrat since 1995 to win the district.
The campaign hoped to buy TV and radio time. There were more lawn signs to purchase. Farris was going to work with a university professor for debate prep. He was scheduled to square off twice with Labrador the week before the election, the first time he’d have a chance to challenge the incumbent. For the final push, Farris needed more money.
The candidate skimmed through a binder and dialed phone numbers.
“Hi, this is Jimmy Farris, candidate for Congress in District 1. How are you doing? ... Okay, well, I don’t know if you saw the Statesman article today, but we got Labrador on the defensive about a number of things. I think it’s important we keep the pressure on. ... I was hoping I could count on you for your support. ... Okay. ... Okay. ... Yeah, whatever you can do is wonderful. ... Well, I really appreciate your support.”
Farris hung up and explained to Scheppler that the woman was heading to the site right away. “It won’t be much,” Farris said, “but she wanted to help.”
“I’m telling you, you got to capitalize on the press that you get,” the campaign manager said. “It really gives you something to talk about to those people who thought you didn’t have a chance. We need every penny we can get.”
Even as the election crept closer, Jimmy Farris’s past life was still present in his home. Ten old football jerseys hung in his laundry room. Photos from his playing days were displayed throughout the front room, and old footballs rested on the shelves.
But more and more, there were signs of his new life, too. His DVD collection included “W.” and “The Kennedys,” and his bookshelf featured “Game Change,” “Grace and Power” and “The Kennedy Legacy.” He’d also added “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” the book about the current congressional class.
On a shelf next to a Redskins game ball he received for a 2006 performance against the Eagles was a framed Certificate of Nomination signed by the Idaho secretary of state. It certified his primary win, formalizing his place on the November ballot.
Farris knew the odds were still long, but in many ways, he felt like he’d already won something. “I enjoyed the process,” he said. “I knew I wanted to represent and help Idaho, and I feel like I’ve achieved something to me that’s bigger than playing in the NFL.”
He sat on a leather sofa, sipping coffee. His faith in the electoral process, he said, had not been shaken.
“I’ve learned more in the past year about people but also about myself,” he said. “You always hear in sports about digging down deep, showing heart, showing character. I think in this endeavor, more than anything I’ve ever done, I’ve really shown what I’m made of.”
Farris finished his coffee and cleaned up. He had another function that night, more people to meet.
“I hope now is that time for me,” he said. “But if I don’t win, I’ll take the time off, get a job, live in the real world for a while. And then I’ll gear back up and do it all again in 2014.”
Rick Maese is a Washington Post staff writer. Send e-mail about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.