NEW YORK -- Frank Della Valle isn't under any illusions.
The soft-spoken 62-year-old from the Bronx knows that running for Congress on both the Conservative and Republican party lines is no easy task in one of the country's most Democratic districts. He knows that his opponent, Rep. José Serrano, has never received less than 92 percent of the vote in more than two decades in office, and that his prospects are further dimmed by the fact that he's no politician – he's a piano tuner.
"To be quite honest," Della Valle says, "it's a long shot."
Della Valle isn't just an underdog but a sacrificial lamb in a quixotic bid against a House incumbent. With a skeletal campaign operation, little money and no support from national bigwigs, such candidates ensure their party at least has a name on the ballot.
Others in this group this year are a Republican rancher in New Mexico and a Democratic hot dog vendor in Texas. They'll challenge the more than 80 percent of House incumbents who are considered shoo-ins for re-election by both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Many are simply tired of the widely accepted notion that incumbents never lose.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the GOP challenger to Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell in New Jersey's 9th Congressional District, calls it "the obscenity of incumbency."
"If they can't lose, what do they care about your interests?" said Boteach, a TV personality who wrote the book "Kosher Sex" and served as pop star Michael Jackson's spiritual adviser.
In every cycle since 1964, at least 85 percent of incumbents have won re-election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"These guys need to be held accountable. And what better way than to mount a very serious challenge and fight like hell?" Boteach said.
The rabbi doesn't see himself as a David to Pascrell's Goliath. In fact, Boteach says his victory is a "mathematical certainty," even though his opponent has raised significantly more money and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1 in the district.
It could be worse.
Alabama Democrat Penny Bailey, a retired Air Force colonel, is running in one of the most Republican-leaning districts in the nation. Although she's the first Democrat to challenge GOP Rep. Spencer Bachus since 1998, Bailey shares Boteach's sense of confidence.
"I'm a female who just retired from the military after 24 years. This is not the first difficult situation I've found myself in," she said, even going so far as to predict a surprise victory over Bachus in November.
Improbable as it may seem, an upset isn't impossible. There could be an unforeseen development.
In 2008, for example, Republican lawyer Joseph Cao shocked Louisiana's political establishment when he defeated longtime Democratic. Rep. William Jefferson, who had been indicted for corruption. Low voter turnout and Jefferson's legal woes contributed to the unexpected outcome.
"You never know when lightning may strike," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "If you don't have somebody on the ballot, you're not going to win, plain and simple."
In San Francisco, Republican businessman John Dennis understands that you have to run to win. For the second consecutive election, the 48-year-old Republican is challenging Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and former House speaker.
Unlike most other sacrificial lamb candidates, Dennis was an effective fundraiser during his last campaign, nearly matching Pelosi's $2.5 million campaign haul. But the cash helped him win just 15 percent of the vote, as the liberal district overwhelmingly supported Pelosi in a year that saw her lose the speaker's gavel.
"You have to have the right expectations about what you're trying to accomplish," said Dennis.
Win or lose, these candidates generally agree that their campaigns serve a critical role in American democracy.
Della Valle understands that while he'll probably return to tuning pianos after the Nov. 6 election, he provides the voters with an option.
"At the end of the day, the voters will pull the lever however they want to pull it. We're not there to browbeat them," Della Valle said. "We just want to offer an alternative. It's important for people to know there's a choice."
Rudy Giuliani And The Price Of Milk
While running for president in 2007, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani <a href="http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/news_theswamp/2007/04/giulianis_price.html">told</a> a reporter at a Montgomery, Ala., supermarket that he estimates "a gallon of milk is probably about a $1.50, a loaf of bread about a $1.25, $1.30, last time I bought one." It must have been a few election cycles since his last trip: The grocery store's website listed milk for $3.38 and bread up to $3.49.
Dan Quayle And Single Mothers
During George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign in 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle <a href="http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1314&dat=19920521&id=b1tWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NfADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6921,388223" target="_hplink">scoffed</a> at the "Murphy Brown situation," referring to a television character who had a child out of wedlock. Quayle called the Brown story "totally unreal," adding, "A highly paid professional woman [with a baby] ... give me a break."
Martha Coakley And Shaking Hands
In a display of aloofness that many political observers say led to her defeat by Republican Scott Brown, Democratic Senate candidate and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley erred in <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0110/Coakley_not_sweating_it.html" target="_hplink">brushing off</a> the idea of ramping up her campaigning. When asked whether she was being too apathetic, she referenced one of Brown's ads and fired back, "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?"
Spiro Agnew And Poor Neighborhoods
Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, branded as Richard Nixon's go-to guy on cities, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/18/us/spiro-t-agnew-ex-vice-president-dies-at-77.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm" target="_hplink">vowed</a> in 1968 to avoid poor neighborhoods. "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all," Agnew said.
Gerald Ford And Tamales
While visiting the Alamo in 1976, President Gerald Ford <a href="http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/No-one-told-Ford-tamales-need-to-be-unwrapped-1536700.php" target="_hplink">bit</a> into a tamale through the husk, a faux pas later deemed the "Great Tamales Incident."
George H.W. Bush And Grocery Scanners
President George H.W. Bush caught flak for <a href="http://www.snopes.com/history/american/bushscan.asp" target="_hplink">appearing awed</a> by a supermarket check-out scanner while touring a grocers convention in 1992. It turned out the president was being shown a new bar code technology, and the convention worker who was alongside Bush later said it's "foolish to think the president doesn't know anything about grocery stores. He knew exactly what I was talking about."
George W. Bush And Gas Prices
In 2008, President George W. Bush <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/business/worldbusiness/03iht-assess.4.11654214.html?_r=1" target="_hplink">said</a> he had not heard predictions that gas prices could soon hit $4 a gallon. At the time, the national average was $3.29 a gallon.
John Kerry And Cheese Steak
In 2003, Democratic presidential contender John Kerry <a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/battle10/244119/bloombergs-john-kerry-cheesesteak-moment-thomas-shakely#" target="_hplink">ordered</a> Swiss cheese on a cheese steak while campaigning in South Philadelphia, straying from the traditional favorite topping, Cheez Whiz.
Michael Dukakis And The Tank
Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis <a href="http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2008/01/17/the-photo-op-that-tanked" target="_hplink">tried</a> to one-up Republican opponent George H.W. Bush on national defense by striking a pose in an M1 Abrams tank.
Mitt Romney And Wawa
Mitt Romney has had his fair share of seemingly out-of-touch statements this election cycle, admitting he likes to "fire people" and <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/mitt-romney-sandwich-computer-wawa/story?id=16587170#.T-Ca3XBfaUc" target="_hplink">expressing amazement</a> at the touchscreen ordering system at convenience store Wawa.
Barack Obama And The Private Sector
President Barack Obama is not exempt from the "gotcha" moment. In June, he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/08/obama-doing-fine-private-sector_n_1581874.html" target="_hplink">described</a> the private sector economy as "doing fine." The gaffe immediately elicited comparisons with his 2008 Republican opponent, John McCain, who said that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" in the midst of a crippling financial crisis.