WASHINGTON – Call ’em the comeback crew.
Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey served years in the Senate, bowed out because of a term-limits promise or the frustration of endless fundraising, and then discovered they couldn’t quit the place.
Pleas from party leaders and the opportunity to revise and extend their legacies lured them back. Now in their second acts, at age 68 and 88, respectively, they could be joined by former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who left in 2001.
Kerrey, who was Nebraska’s governor and two-term senator, faces an uphill fight in trying to win the seat that Democrat Ben Nelson is leaving at the end of the year. Nebraska is a strong Republican state – John McCain beat Barack Obama 57-42 percent in the 2008 presidential race – and outside groups already have labeled Kerrey a carpetbagger who spent the past decade as an academic in New York City.
The decorated former Navy SEAL remains undeterred about coming back to a fiercely divided Washington.
“Maybe Olympia Snowe is right: You’ve got terminal dysfunction and there’s nothing that can be done about it,” said Kerrey, referring to the moderate Maine GOP senator who recently decided against another campaign. “But you tend to be more optimistic about being able to get something done about it when you’re on the outside rather than on the inside. … When you’re out, there’s a tendency to believe – and I do – that you can make a difference.”
Coats served for a decade, from 1989 to 1999, then was ambassador to Germany in George W. Bush’s administration and a Washington lobbyist. About two years ago, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called him about possible candidates with statewide name recognition to run against Sen. Evan Bayh, then a formidable Democratic incumbent with more than $14 million in his campaign account. Coats offered several names; Cornyn said he didn’t bother to ask the former senator because it was unlikely he’d come back.
Coats said it was a “put up or shut up” moment. “I thought this is a way to move from kind of yelling at the TV in a frustrated way over what was happening in Washington to get back in the arena and try to do something about it,” he said in an interview.
Bayh decided against another bid, Coats survived a tough GOP primary and then easily won the seat in November 2010.
Lautenberg left the Senate in January 2001 after 18 years. Then came Sept. 11 and the terrorist attacks.
“I realized I made a mistake. With my experience, I’m not there, the war is starting, the recession’s starting,” Lautenberg said in an interview. “I missed it terribly. I felt helpless.”
The ethical woes of former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli forced him to abandon his bid in 2002. Democrats scrambled for a replacement and ensured that Lautenberg got on the ballot. He won handily and in the last decade, has fought against privatization of the air traffic control system and pushed for tighter security at seaports and airports.
Kerrey is now a frequent flyer to Nebraska from his home in New York where his wife and young son live. He hasn’t run statewide since 1994 and will have to introduce himself to voters who only recognize the name from Omaha’s popular pedestrian bridge spanning the Missouri River.