Former Congress denizens can’t drum up support for return to Capitol Hill


Bob Barr, shown in 2008, and Marjorie Margolies, shown May 20. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP (left); Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP (right))
May 21

Voters in two very different districts served up an early warning sign of Clinton fatigue.

In increasingly blue suburban Philadelphia and solid red suburban Atlanta, Democratic and Republican primary voters sent a decidedly hesitant message Tuesday when faced with the choice of returning to Congress a pair of lightning rods from the 1990s.

Marjorie Margolies, the deciding vote for Bill Clinton’s first budget in 1993, was soundly defeated in her bid to reclaim the House seat she lost in 1994, despite a closing ad campaign that blanketed the airwaves featuring the former president touting her “courage.” Bob Barr, the staunch conservative who first won in 1994, ended up in a distant second place in the race for his old House seat despite running as the man who first introduced articles of impeachment against Clinton.

Neither of these races will say much about Hillary Clinton’s prospects in 2016 should she be the Democratic nominee for president, but they showed the limits for those hoping to ride the coattails of this always-polarizing family into office.

Margolies, 71, and Barr, 65, served as opposing sides of the same political coin, one with Bill Clinton’s mug on it, and they banked largely on their connection to past glory being enough to vault them into office again.

“We’ve got to get our country back into the future business,” the former president said in a taped phone call that went to thousands of voters on behalf of Margolies, whose son is married to Chelsea Clinton.

That message did as little for Margolies as it did for Barr, both of whom secured a nearly identical margin — a little more than 25 percent — in their respective primaries.

They had both been transformational figures in their regions 20 years ago, but by Tuesday, voters appeared to be thinking more about tomorrow than yesterday.

In Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District, state Rep. Brendan Boyle, 37, ran up huge margins in the working-class portions of Northeast Philadelphia, where Margolies’s background as a foundation chief and former congresswoman felt out of touch. When she represented the 13th, it was almost entirely anchored in Montgomery County, with more professional suburban workers.

In Georgia’s 11th district, Barry Loudermilk, a former Air Force communications specialist and technology executive who has served in the state legislature since 2005, rung up almost 40 percent of the initial ballots. Barr and Loudermilk are now headed to a run-off race in July, providing the former congressman a chance to regroup and possibly win the GOP nomination.

Yet in a sign of how times have changed in 20 years, Barr found himself outflanked in the crowded primary. He wasn’t the biggest firebrand, nor was he the staunchest conservative. Loudermilk became the favorite of local tea party groups and won endorsements from Washington-based figures who have made a habit of backing anti-establishment conservatives — something that was supposed to be right in Barr’s wheelhouse.

“What differentiates me is I have been there on your behalf; I have fought the liberals, I have defeated them,” Barr told farmers at a candidate forum in late April.

Loudermilk offered a sharper version of his confrontation strategy: “Get government out of our lives, get government out of our pocket, get government out of our businesses.”

When the question-and-answer session began at that forum, the first query focused on congressional retirement plans and whether candidates would take them — immediately putting Barr on the defensive about being a former member.

Barr at least stands a chance, something that Margolies does not have. “It’s a shock,” she was heard whispering to her pollster after a brief concession speech.

It shouldn’t have been, either for her or for Barr.

The public has held Congress in record-low esteem for several years now, and while their past service helped with name identification in early polling, it meant little as more voters focused on the races. The mood is not anti-incumbent — 13 states have held primaries and not a single congressional incumbent has fallen — but in wide-open races for governor or Congress, experience on Capitol Hill has sometimes been discounted.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D), who holds the seat Margolies competed for, was routed Tuesday in her bid for her party’s gubernatorial nomination, and most of her ads cloaked her 12 years in the Capitol.

Maroglies and Barr jumped into these respective open-seat races to much fanfare, both masters at attracting media attention.

In her initial 1992 victory, Margolies claimed a seat that had long been in the hands of moderate Republicans. Along with Bill Clinton’s victory there in Montgomery County, she heralded the dramatic shift of Northeastern and Midwestern suburbs into Democratic strongholds.

A former TV broadcaster, she was married at the time to a former congressman, Ed Mezvinsky, and attracted the affectionate nickname of “3M.” In summer 1993, she positioned herself to be the tie-breaking 218th vote for Clinton’s budget, which raised taxes on her wealthy constituents, and all she got in exchange was a Clinton-attended summit at Bryn Mawr College on the swelling federal debt.

The easy access up the I-95/Amtrak corridor turned her 1994 reelection bid into a national symbol, as Washington media flocked there to monitor it as a referendum on Clinton.

Down in Atlanta’s northwestern suburbs, a Clinton rebellion was brewing when Barr, a former U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration, took on a veteran conservative Democrat, Buddy Darden.

As Margolies lost on Election Night 1994, Barr won a narrow victory, heralding a new era of transforming onetime bastions of Southern Democrats into the terrain of the hardest-edged conservative Republicans.

Once in the Capitol, Barr became a lightning rod. His original articles of impeachment were debuted long before the Monica Lewinsky affair was made public and had nothing to do with the false testimony that was the actual case.

He was one of 13 impeachment managers sent from the House to try the case against Clinton in the Senate. Calling Patrick Kennedy “young man,” he nearly came to blows with the Rhode Island congressman during a gun control debate. Two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Barr introduced his own declaration of war on the House steps, before the Bush White House sent such a resolution to the Capitol.

After 2002 redistricting, however, Barr jumped into a more GOP-friendly district against a fellow incumbent, and lost badly in the primary. Out of office, he drifted into Libertarianism, including an unsuccessful stint as the party’s 2008 presidential nominee.

Margolies also toyed with political runs. She was her party’s lieutenant governor nominee in a disastrous 1998 campaign, and she briefly ran for the Senate nomination in 2000, before settling into running a nonprofit in eastern Montgomery County.

With another Clinton thinking about the presidency and health care claiming center stage as an issue again, the time might have seemed right for the former lawmakers. Instead, their opponents focused on today’s Congress.

Boyle — who wasn’t eligible to vote when Margolies lost and Barr won in 1994 — built a campaign around sending a different crop of people to Capitol Hill, rather than the same class of wealthy politicians.

“Another millionaire in Congress won’t change anything,” the narrator said in one ad touting Boyle. Voters agreed.

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