GOP Candidate for Iowa House Reflects on Defeat

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Mike Whalen and Kelly Madison

Mike Whalen, a Republican who lost his bid for a House seat from Iowa, at the Machine Shed, a restaurant he started in Davenport, Iowa. He's standing beside Kelly Madison, a server who has worked at the restaurant for 17 years. David Greene, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene, NPR

Like many Republican candidates in key House districts across the United States, Mike Whalen of Iowa won't be going to Capitol Hill next year. Whalen lost his bid for an Iowa House seat previously held by a Republican.

In an interview over breakfast at the Machine Shed, a restaurant which Whalen opened in 1978, the candidate is sanguine about his defeat. He says his family took the loss well and are actually looking forward to seeing more of him over the holidays than they would've if he were putting a congressional staff together.

But when you get him talking, he does start to reflect on what happened in the campaign. He says he wished he had kept more to the issues, rather than getting caught up in a daily back and forth with his opponent.

"If I have one regret, I would have worked much harder at trying to be more Mike Whalen, and less a candidate," he says. "I should have tried to find more ways to be even more substantive than I was."

But Whalen says a big problem for both him and for his opponent was that the national parties got so involved in their race.

"Twenty years ago, elections at the congressional level were fought between two candidates," Whalen says. "In many respects, I wouldn't say we're spectators, or were spectators. But we were kind of spectators."

Whalen has a lot of complaints about ads run by the Democratic party against him. But what's most striking is that Whalen says the low point for him in the campaign was something his own national party did: They ran an ad attacking Whalen's opponent, Bruce Braley, noting that Braley had been called a "peace candidate" by the Communist Party.

"You sort of shake your head and say, 'What's going on?'" Whalen says, calling the add over the top. He insists he didn't know about it until he saw it on television.

Candidates certainly can decide whether or not they want national party big-wigs coming in and campaigning for them. For Whalen, this was his first run for public office. And when people like Republican party chairman Ken Mehlman and First Lady Laura Bush offered to come to Iowa and help get Whalen elected, Whalen felt he couldn't say no. He looks back now and says he was grateful for those visits. But he feels he agreed to too many events with these national Republican figures.

"It seems like you're going from one to the other, and it has to be a significant focus of your staff's time," he says.

Whalen says Iraq also hurt his candidacy. After the election, he says he was approached by a man at an Iowa Hawkeyes football game. The man said Whalen would normally have had his vote, but the man felt a need to send a message about the war. Whalen says President Bush just wasn't able to convince people the war in Iraq was going well. And he says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had become a lightning rod.

I ask Whalen if he agrees with critics who say that President Bush could have helped GOP candidates if he'd fired Rumsfeld before the election.

"I think certainly it would have helped Republican candidates, had the American public felt there was something other than stay the course," he says.

Whalen says he's not sure yet whether he will run again for the same seat in 2008. But he says he's convinced that the tide of antiwar sentiment that hurt him and other Republicans will only be temporary.



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