A rags-to-riches path into Congress

Patrick McHenry faced no nailbiter yesterday, but that doesn't mean his House bid was easy.

Even before the polls closed yesterday, the House membership of the 109th Congress was, for practical purposes, all but set - give or take a few dozen seats.

That's why newcomer Patrick McHenry signed a lease on a Capitol Hill apartment even before the Nov. 2 vote to send him to Washington. At 29, the North Carolina Republican is expected to be the youngest member of the next Congress. And coming from a safe GOP district, he's also expected to be around in the House long enough to be a player.

"It's the candidates under 30 who are the comers," says Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. McHenry "won [the primary] with very little money. But once you win, the money rolls in."

His first fundraising event was in an apartment in Washington's Dupont Circle, where a handful of college friends "dug deep until it hurt and gave me $50 apiece," he says. After winning the primary, things changed. Big money contributors were knocking on his door. "I had 64 voice messages on my cellphone the day after the primary," he chuckles. His next Washington fundraiser was at the Capitol Hill Club. This time, attendees included top lobbyists and GOP contributors, and netted the candidate more than $60,000.

His story is a window on congressional politics in the 21st century, where competitive seats are increasingly the odd exception. In safe seats, like the small-town, conservative 10th district of North Carolina, the tough race is the primary. Once elected, incumbents are rarely turned out of office.

This is true, even though the nation's overall partisan divide put Republican control of both houses of Congress up for grabs.

"The House of Representatives has become a mutual incumbent protection society," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Incumbency is the equivalent of having a trust fund. It sustains you."

In the 2004 race, less than 37 of 435 House seats were ranked competitive, say analysts ranging from the Cook Political Report to the Congressional Quarterly. In 65 districts, the incumbent faced no major party opposition in yesterday's vote. In most, the candidate of the incumbent party wins by a landslide.

"There are fewer truly competitive seats this year than in years past," says Bo Harmon, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, who counted about 206 "safe" Republican seats, and 186 "safe" Democratic seats before yesterday's vote.

A college student - and a candidate

But for many of these incumbents, the fight to get through the primary is fierce. McHenry winces when he recalls his first race for the North Carolina legislature in 1998, while he was still a college student living at home. His opponent, the father of a high school classmate, ran ads with a chubby baby and the tagline: "Would you trust a child with your money?"

He also didn't appreciate his rival's claim that he hadn't done anything in life. So, after losing the race (and graduating from Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.), he left home to get some experience. His first job with the Washington-based media firm DCI/New Media included managing a website to oppose Hillary Clinton's 2000 run for the US Senate. "I didn't like her politics," he says. But "you have to have a level of respect for her skills."

In June 2000, he joined the Bush campaign, after a 10-minute interview with top Bush adviser Karl Rove in Austin, Texas, that opened with the question: "Why are you wearing a tie?" ("I didn't know that you don't wear a suit in Austin," he says.) After the campaign, including a stint in the Florida recount, he was assigned to organize volunteers for the Bush inauguration.

But running for office was never far from his thoughts. So, after a few months as a special assistant in the US Labor Department, he returned to North Carolina, where he opened a real estate office, joined the Rotary Club, and began planning another run for the state legislature in 2002. This time, he raised more money - $25,000, compared with $6,000 in his first race - and knocked on the doors of every likely primary voter. "I'd talk five minutes or an hour," he says. "Instead of going out and giving a speech, I had a conversation with people on their doorsteps." It was enough to defeat the mayor pro tem, a candidate viewed as the founder of the GOP in his hometown of Gastonia.

Tough four-way primary

When 10-term GOP Rep. Cass Ballenger announced his retirement in 2004, McHenry jumped into a tough four-man primary. Some friends told him he couldn't win. Still, he managed to build a grass-roots juggernaut with scores of volunteers and help from people he knew from his days as state chairman of the North Carolina Federation of College Republicans and, later, as CR national treasurer.

The four-man GOP primary was a bruiser, dubbed by the Charlotte Observer "one of the nastiest races in modern 10th District history." McHenry raised less than $300,000 for the primary, while his GOP rivals raised $450,000, $800,000, and $1.2 million. It ended in a recount, in which McHenry defeated longtime Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman by only 85 votes. His Democratic opponent on Nov. 2, Anne Fischer, a stress release facilitator, raised $6,000. In all, McHenry raised more than $800,000 for this race. In addition, conservative groups such as the antitax Club for Growth ran independent ads supporting his candidacy.

"Patrick must have shaken 100,000 hands. The fact that he was able to convince so many people to volunteer full-time for him is a testament to his political skills," says Jonathan Collegio, a GOP activist and former CR Oregon state chair.

On the eve of the 2004 vote, political handicappers said candidates of the incumbent party had insurmountable leads in 85 percent of House races. Other expected shoo-ins include scions of political families, such as Dan Boren, son of former Sen. David Boren (D), in Oklahoma's 2nd district, and Russ Carnahan, son of the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.

Most of the endangered incumbents were in the Texas delegation, where 2003 redistricting has forced longtime Democrats to run in GOP-leaning districts.

But when the dust settles, it's the newcomers who made their own way who are catching the eye of party leaders. Rep. Adam Putnam (R) of Florida, who will be displaced by McHenry as youngest House member, was just appointed to the powerful House Rules Committee.

"Patrick McHenry had a tough primary, and we expect he will be a very strong member," says NRCC spokesman Harmon. "Winning at such a young age, against people with longer involvement, shows him to have strong political skills."

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