ST. PAUL, Minn. — When bearded Democratic maverick Rick Nolan dropped out of Congress 32 years ago to start a vegetable farm in rural Minnesota, the Reagan revolution was just beginning and his future Republican rival was a student at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Now a silver-haired businessman with grandchildren, Nolan is trying to go back to Washington.
He is among several former lawmakers attempting comebacks after being shaped by earlier political eras. Nolan, first elected in Watergate's wake in 1974, served three terms during the Ford and Carter administrations. Republicans Matt Salmon of Arizona and Steve Stockman of Texas went to Washington in the Clinton years. And Texas Democrat Nick Lampson is campaigning again after serving five terms during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
In an election shadowed by public disdain for government, these vintage politicians are running as both insiders and outsiders – hybrids with enough distance from Washington to decry gridlock, but with the promise of getting things done because they know how the place works.
In Washington, "Too often the people back there believe what they're smoking," said Salmon, who left the House in 2001 to honor a pledge to quit after three terms. "They just get so out of touch with what's going on in real America. They're so insulated from the real mainstream. I just believe that going out and coming back, I'm going to come back so effective."
Salmon never really left politics – he lost a bid for governor in 2002 and worked as a lobbyist for Arizona State University and companies including a Phoenix-based military contractor. He's favored over Democrat Morgan Spencer in a Republican-leaning suburban Phoenix district after beating a primary rival backed by Sarah Palin.
Nolan, too, is drawing on experience in and out of Washington as he challenges faces first-term Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack in a northeastern Minnesota race considered a toss-up. Nolan said his seniority would help the sprawling, blue-collar district after Cravaack, a tea party favorite, knocked out an 18-term incumbent two years ago. The race will help determine whether Democrats can win a net 25 seats to take over the House.
"People feel we need to make some changes now, not 20 years from now," Nolan said last month as he chatted up voters at the Minnesota State Fair. "So the fact that I'm able to retain my seniority – and I show up in Washington as a fourth-term member of Congress who had a well-recognized record of being effective when I was there – is turning out to be a pretty big asset." House rules allow credit for previous service, which affects committee assignments.
Two younger opponents tried to turn the 68-year-old Nolan's age against him in the primary, but Nolan won comfortably. Republicans are mocking Nolan as a "Watergate baby" and pointing out that bell bottoms and disco music were popular when he left Congress.
Nolan has countered that his experience after Congress – running and losing an export business, leading Minnesota's World Trade Center, going bankrupt, working in real estate and turning around a small sawmill – helps him understand voters' problems.
Nolan has said he decided to run after trying to recruit a Democrat to challenge Cravaack and realizing he could do it himself. The former congressman said he wants to end "wars of choice" and protect Social Security and Medicare. He's counting on the fact that the district hadn't voted Republican for more than 60 years before the GOP landslide of 2010.
The political world has changed since he last ran in 1978 – back when $250,000 was enough to win. He estimated he now needs at least $2 million. Fundraising is more demanding and the tone of campaigns has gotten harsher. Northern Minnesota's bedrock Democratic constituency of union members has dwindled, while Cravaack – a former airline pilot and union member – has nurtured his own connections to labor.
In Texas, Lampson saw a chance to go back when redistricting and Rep. Ron Paul's retirement created an open seat overlapping much of his old district. He's hoping people remember his name after four years out of Congress spent working with the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children and a trade group of long-term care providers.
Lampson's opponent, Republican state Rep. Randy Weber, has Paul's endorsement in the right-leaning district. Lampson is playing up his experience with bipartisan cooperation.
"It's going to take someone who has proven to make an effort at changing the way Congress functions to pull us together again," Lampson said.
In another Texas district, Republican Steve Stockman is favored to win 18 years after dislodging a longtime Democratic incumbent in the 1994 "Gingrich revolution." Stockman lost to Lampson just two years later, and since then has worked as a political consultant and helped found conservative groups on college campuses.
During his single term, Stockman became known for claiming that the federal government "executed" Branch Davidian cult members in a 1993 siege outside Waco.
After winning his July primary, Stockman promised on Facebook, "I will continue my 100% pro-gun, 100% pro-life, 100% pro-taxpayer agenda from a strong Republican district. Now, back to Washington to defeat Big Government and RESTORE the Constitution."
For those who worked as lobbyists, returning to Congress may be a financial step down. But for others, it's a good paycheck. House members earn $174,000 a year, plus benefits.