Return of the Republican has-beens?

Former GOP Rep. Rob Simmons: Time for a comeback? (AP)

Republicans once saddled with the burden of President George W. Bush‘s unpopularity are now experiencing a boon from another struggling president: Barack Obama.

The GOP senses rising fortunes from coast to coast, as one-time lawmakers such as Richard Pombo in California and Charlie Bass in New Hampshire look to capitalize on voter frustration that booted some of them from office in 2006. Others, long retired, see the Democrats’ luster fading and with it a chance for them to return to Washington.

The time seems ripe for Republicans, who largely remain unified against Obama’s domestic agenda, including health care overhaul. Both the president and his signature legislative achievement remain unpopular at this point in a midterm election year, according to a recent AP-GfK poll. Voters’ opinions also have turned against Democrats and their stewardship of the economy; Obama’s approval rating is at a new low.

That bodes well for — and feels familiar to — some Republicans.

“The race in 2006 was against a huge headwind,” said former Rep. Rob Simmons, who is pursuing Connecticut’s open Senate seat.

Simmons lost his House seat in 2006 by just 83 votes — out of almost a quarter million ballots cast — as voters seeking change in Washington rejected many candidates simply because they had the word Republican next to their name. The sentiment caught many by surprise; 30 Republicans were sent home.

“I didn’t get the feeling in 2006 that I was a bum who needed to be thrown out,” Simmons said.

But, he acknowledged in an interview, that mood now favors Republicans.

“A lot has happened in a very short time,” he said.

Just 49 percent of people now approve of the job Obama’s doing overall, and less than that — 44 percent — like the way he’s handled health care and the economy. The news is worse for other Democrats. For the first time this year, about as many Americans approve of congressional Republicans as Democrats — 38 percent to 41 percent — and neither has an edge when it comes to the party voters want controlling Congress.

“I never thought I’d run for office again, but with the direction President Obama is taking the country, (wife) Marsha and I decided we had to stand up,” former Sen. Dan Coats, running for an open Senate seat in Indiana after being gone for 21 years, told supporters in a campaign commercial.

Former Rep. John Hostettler, voted out of office in the 2006 wave, is also trying to capture the Republican nomination in Indiana.

Democrats dismiss such GOP veterans as retreads who would revive the Bush agenda, hardly the change the electorate might crave.

In Ohio, former Sen. Mike DeWine is running for attorney general. Former Rep. John Kasich is eyeing the governor’s office. Steve Chabot is looking for a rematch against the Democrat who ousted him from his House seat in 2008. And former Bush administration official and congressman Rob Portman is vying for the Senate seat incumbent Republican George Voinovich is vacating with his retirement.

In California, Pombo is looking to reclaim a seat he lost in 2006, as the wars’ popularity waned and Republicans faced ethics accusations. Democrats painted Pombo as an associate of the toxic lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he lost with 47 percent of the vote in 2006.

Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, another 2006 loser who was linked to Abramoff, now wants to return to Congress. He is challenging Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, in a bitter Republican primary in Arizona.

Abramoff was sentenced in September 2008 to four years in prison on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. Since pleading guilty in 2006, the once-powerful lobbyist has cooperated with the federal investigation of influence peddling in Washington.

In New Hampshire, Bass is seeking the Republican nomination for a familiar seat in an all-too-familiar environment. He lost his seat with 46 percent of the vote in 2006.

“In some ways, it’s all deja vu all over again,” said Dante Scala, chairman of the University of New Hampshire’s political science department. “He came in on a wave in ’94, lost in the wave of 2006 and is now hoping for another wave.”

Republicans seized control of Congress from Democrats in 1994, capitalizing on disenchantment with a party that had controlled the House for decades and fallout from President Bill Clinton‘s agenda. The GOP hammered Clinton, whose Gallup poll approval rating in October of that year was 48 percent — similar to Obama’s now.

The GOP ran on the Contract With America, a package of conservative promises that included term limits for powerful committee chairmen and elimination of some government departments. The package found almost uniform support among Republicans and drew enough independent votes to toss Democrats out of the majority.

Then in 2006, Democrats took back Congress, winning the House and Senate with a resounding rebuke of Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and capitalizing on ethical woes of some GOP lawmakers, including the Abramoff-tainted lawmakers.

Veteran candidates include former Reps. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Tom Campbell in California, both making second bids for the Senate. They and others come with scores of votes or post-congressional careers that draw scrutiny.

Ohio’s Kasich worked for Lehman Brothers; its failure in September 2008 was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history and triggered the financial meltdown that plunged the economy into the most severe recession since the 1930s. Coats has worked as a lobbyist.

“What the retread Republicans are indicating: If you get a Republican Congress, it would be the same old George W. Bush agenda,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who heads the House election committee.

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