Shays is, one can say without exaggeration, one of the nicest members of the House of Representatives. He worked the Little League crowd easily, shaking hands with constituents and brushing aside their thanks for having chosen to spend part of his weekend with them. “Thank you. I love representing you,” he said to one couple, before turning to their two young sons. “Hey, guys, I’m Chris. And your name is—?” Doling out White House tour passes, Shays joked with voters about his own uncertain reelection prospects. “Does this come with an expiration date?” asked Sharon Risch, a Fairfield resident who took his business card, on which was written Shays’s promise of a personal escort to the White House gate. “Well, I have to get reelected. That gives you an incentive,” he replied.
Shays, at least, has an easy time fund-raising, because he represents one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the country. He doesn’t have to plead personally for contributions; if he sends out a direct-mail appeal to his constituents, they usually respond with sizable checks. Other lawmakers have to hustle. Sarah Feinberg, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman, estimates that incumbent members in a competitive race spend “twenty-five hours a week” fund-raising, while challengers devote “forty to fifty hours a week” to literally dialing for dollars.
Heather Wilson, the forty-five-year-old five-term Republican from New Mexico, is an Air Force Academy graduate and a former Rhodes scholar; she is also something of an anomaly among the representatives whose seats are up for grabs. While Democratic voters in her district have an edge over Republicans, she has voted with her party 87 percent of the time since Bush took office, showing enough of an independent streak that Democrats sometimes have trouble depicting her as a GOP crony. Wilson sided with Democrats to ask the Bush administration to reveal the true cost of its expensive Medicare drug program, and she recently introduced legislation that would require administration officials to brief Congress on electronic surveillance. But because the Democrats think she’s vulnerable, her fund-raising challenge is even greater than usual. Last election, her opponent and national Democrats spent $3.3 million against her. In the previous four contests, her opponents spent more than $10 million trying to win—and that’s not counting the money liberal advocacy groups have poured into her races. Wilson estimates that she will need to raise $4 million this year to emerge victorious. Her opponent, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, has already raised nearly $2 million, and expects to raise “nearly as much” as Wilson.
In addition to the fourteen-hour workday Wilson often puts in—soliciting money, sitting on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and taking care of constituents—she faces a grueling weekly commute that takes seven hours each way (if all goes smoothly) between her studio in Washington and her full-time residence in Albuquerque. Wilson’s family is used to this: her daughter, Cait, was just over eighteen months old when her mother first won federal office, and by age three she had developed a hand signal to use when she wanted undivided attention in the face of Wilson’s official demands: she clenches her hand in a fist, like an O, and then splays her three middle fingers downward: Ordinary Mom. (When Cait was younger and would say “I want you” over the phone to Wilson, the congresswoman recalls, “it was almost physically painful.”)