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, Mr. Nolan is trying to go back to Washington.
He is among several former lawmakers attempting comebacks after being shaped by earlier political eras. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 tossup. Mr. Nolan said his seniority would help the sprawling, blue-collar district after Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.
In Texas, Mr. 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.