Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s ill-fated presidential campaign — which he called “the worst 15 minutes of my life” — is in the books.
But his brief 2012 flirtation is haunting him in his resumed House reelection bid.
Looming for McCotter is a primary against at least one serious GOP rival who wants to cast the congressman as less interested in serving his constituents than waging a futile presidential foray. To add to his woes, McCotter must make amends for attacking Mitt Romney, a favorite son whose family name is well respected in southeastern Michigan.
To some, the predicament underscores what was obvious all along: Running for the nation’s highest office would do McCotter more harm than good.
“Why he took this flight of fancy, I’ll never know,” said L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive and longtime Michigan GOP power broker. “He couldn’t have believed that he had a chance. So why did he run around the country and not get into the debates? It would leave some of his constituents scratching their heads.”
McCotter has long been regarded as a quirky creature on Capitol Hill — a guitar-playing congressman who at times departs from party orthodoxy. But the long-shot White House bid was a jarring departure for McCotter, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner and former member of the House GOP leadership who has been in elected office for more than two decades.
“I think Thad’s presidential adventure was somewhat puzzling,” said GOP state Rep. Kurt Heise, who shares McCotter’s Wayne County political base. “I would not have advised him to do it, but I guess it’s something he wanted to give a shot to.”
State Sen. Mike Kowall, who announced his candidacy for the 11th District House seat at last weekend’s Michigan GOP confab at Mackinac Island, where McCotter was also in attendance, signaled he would portray the congressman as distant.
“We want to make sure Wayne County and Oakland County are well represented in Washington, and I want to be the one to do it,” Kowall told POLITICO.
McCotter isn’t the first member to face a primary after waging a long-shot presidential campaign. In 2008, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich ditched his bid in order to defend his seat from four primary foes. In 2010, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, fended off a crowded field of tea-party-oriented opponents who charged that the congressman had gone Washington.
Martin Van Valkenburg, a McCotter spokesman, defended the presidential run, calling it an opportunity to put his ideas before a national audience.
“It was the right choice, and now we’ve come back to run in the 11th District,” he said.
Just as problematic for McCotter are the broadsides he launched against Romney, whose family has roots in Oakland County, an area included in the congressman’s newly drawn district. Romney grew up in Bloomfield Hills, where he attended the exclusive Cranbrook School. His father, George Romney, a onetime Michigan governor and former automobile executive, also called the Detroit suburb his home.
McCotter sought to combat the image of Romney as the state’s favorite son during his presidential run. In June, just prior to a Romney campaign visit to southeastern Michigan, he held a news conference in which he mockingly welcomed Romney to the state. “Our struggling families, entrepreneurs and workers can’t afford policies that make Mr. Romney and Mr. [Barack] Obama less than rivals and more like running mates,” McCotter said in an accompanying statement.
McCotter sounded a far different note last week, when he endorsed Romney and called him the most electable candidate in the Republican field.
“They do have differences on issues, and [McCotter] will continue to stand on his beliefs on issues that he feels strongly about,” said Van Valkenburg. “You can’t agree with someone 100 percent of the time on every issue.”
Jason Roe, a GOP consultant who worked on McCotter’s first run for Congress but who is supporting Kowall, said the attacks on Romney would damage the congressman’s standing with the contributors he’ll need in his reelection.
“Thad has spent his entire career flipping off people in the establishment. He has assailed his donor base with his comments,” Roe said. McCotter’s Romney endorsement, Roe believes, “is clearly an attempt to rebuild those bridges.”
Kowall, who serves on Romney’s state leadership team, is playing up his support for the Massachusetts governor and his close relationship with the Romney family.
McCotter has won election six times without significant primary opposition, but his 2012 reelection is expected to be more difficult. His seat has been redrawn to include a swath of Oakland County, an area Kowall has represented in the state Legislature since the late 1990s. Kowall has already secured the support of several local officials, including Oakland County Clerk Bill Bullard and state Sen. Jim Marleau.
“The district has changed, and a big portion of his district is in Sen. Kowall’s district,” said Novi Mayor Pro-Tem Bob Gatt, who is also supporting Kowall. “I personally think Sen. Kowall has a chance to do something that’s very hard to do — defeat a sitting congressman.”
McCotter’s allies, however, said voters will take his short-lived bid in stride — it’s all part of his quirky, outside-the-mainstream approach, they believe.
“I don’t think anyone’s mad at Thad,” said Wayne County GOP Chairman William Runco, a McCotter supporter. “Thad is bold and he’s bold in his thinking and bold in his actions. But he hasn’t been so bold that people feel they need to replace him.”
“I understand that he took a shot, but I see no reason why that should be a negative,” said Joe Xuereb, chairman of the Wayne 11th Congressional District Republican Committee.
Despite the political embarrassment of McCotter’s abandoned bid, it will still be up to Kowall to prove he can compete at the congressional level.
Patterson, the Oakland County executive, said McCotter had hurt himself but was still the favorite — for now.
“That foray into presidential politics is inexplicable and, to a certain extent, left him damaged. But I don’t think Mike Kowall has the horsepower to win.”
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