Robert Gehrke: So, you want to run for Congress? What’s wrong with you?!?

Robert Gehrke

In a few days, all boys and girls will wake, rub their eyes and stagger to their tree to see all the wonders Santa brought them.

The nice ones, at least. The naughty ones will be snatched from their beds, shoved in a sack, dragged to Washington, D.C., and conscripted to be members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

So, you’d better watch out.

It’s not quite that bad. But in the last decade and particularly the last few years, it seems like it’s become harder and harder to get top-notch people who are actually willing to run for Congress.

Take last week, Dan Hemmert, the state senate majority whip, bowed out of the 4th Congressional District race, explaining that the demands of running his dry cleaning businesses made it impossible for him to focus on the campaign.

Hemmert was clearly the one who the national Republican Party wanted to run against U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams. He was part of their “Young Guns” candidate development and recruitment program, and had raised about two-and-a-half times as much as anyone else in the field (largely thanks to a $175,000 loan he gave himself).

Now I want to be clear: I don’t say this to diminish any of the other candidates in the 4th District field. Whoever gets the nomination will have the full backing and probably a couple million bucks in support from the party.

But faced with the prospect of a freshman Democrat in McAdams, who won his last race in a Republican-leaning district by fewer than 700 votes, now having to navigate a tough impeachment vote, you would think that Republicans would be climbing over each other for a shot at him.

But they’re not, to a point that Mia Love, who suffered that defeat to McAdams, said a few months ago that she was so concerned about the field’s chances of unseating McAdams that she was leaving open the possibility of a rematch in 2020.

It’s not that Republicans haven’t tried to recruit someone. They’ve dangled the possibility in front of several candidates, and the answer has been, “Yeesh, thanks but no thanks.”

The reason, it seems, is pretty simple: Being a member of Congress is about as glamorous as cleaning out Santa’s reindeer stalls with an elf’s teaspoon or working for a newspaper.

Ask Jason Chaffetz, who left just a few months after his re-election.

“It’s really tough,” he told me last week. “There’s a saying in Congress that friends don’t let friends run for Congress. The problem is they didn’t tell me that before I ran.”

I know what you’re thinking: “Boo hoo. Work a shift at an Amazon warehouse around the holidays and then we can talk.”

That’s fair. But take a minute to put yourself in the shoes of a prospective candidate and think about what the commitment entails.

You’ve got to spring for a place to live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States — which is why many in Congress room together. You’ll rack up a ton of frequent flyer miles, because you need to be in your district and might want to see your family now and then.

“If you average it out, I spent about four or five days in a month at home,” Chaffetz said.

It’s bipartisan. I’ve heard the same lament from Rep. Rob Bishop — who is leaving at the end of his current term — as well as former Rep. Jim Matheson and Rep. Jim Hansen when he was alive.

Then there’s fundraising. A “60 Minutes” report a few years ago compared members of Congress to glorified telemarketers, spending almost all their free time at their party’s call centers which are literally across the street from the Capitol offices calling people who don’t want to talk to them and asking for money.

In 2018, more than $5.7 billion was spent on congressional elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If you’re in a competitive race, you’ll need to raise at least $1 million a year. McAdams, for example, has raised $1.3 million.

And the national campaign committees, of course, want a cut, a large one, if you happen to land a plum assignment. When he chaired the oversight committee, Chaffetz said he was expected to raise $875,000 per cycle for the party.

Then there’s being part of a vitriolic body where it’s almost impossible to actually achieve whatever idealistic goals got into the race, especially if you’re in the minority party. That was a big part of the reason former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who was recruited to run several times over the years, always declined.

“It isn’t public service. It’s public food fights — or worse. The ability to make a difference and help people appears to be impossible,” said Hughes, who stressed he’s grateful to those actually willing to make the sacrifice.

It’s not all bad. You get to wear a neat congressional pin and lots of lobbyists will buy you lunch. You might get to share the House sauna with New York Rep. Jerry Nadler. And you’ll receive — free of charge — the burning hatred of a sizable portion of your district.

It’s no wonder our Congress ends up being the cream of the crap. Nor is it surprising that 31 House members — 24 of them Republicans — have already said they won’t run again. Maybe it’s more surprising that 404 still are, for now.

I’ll get into fixes for these problems in a future column — although none of them is easy. If that kind of lifestyle is appealing, contact your local political party, a shrink, or just be naughty and wait for Santa to spirit you away. If it doesn’t, well, then you’d better be good, for goodness sake.

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