Nancy Soderberg, a top foreign-policy official in the Bill Clinton administration, was settled into a post-Washington life in northern Florida, teaching and staying active in community affairs. Several years ago, she ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat.
Then a little over a year ago, she suddenly focused on trying to go back to Washington, this time as a member of the House.
“It never occurred to me until after Trump’s first few months and policies to consider Congress,” she said in an interview. “Then you start asking, ‘What can I do?’” She’s running in a Republican district — the incumbent is leaving to run for governor — but she could win if there’s a blue wave.
She is one of more than a dozen former top officials from the Clinton and Obama administrations running as Democrats for House seats this year. The catalyst is Donald Trump, with more than a few of these candidates convinced that the fate of the country is at stake this November.
Attention has already been paid to the more than 40 military veterans running as Democrats for the House this year. Three women veterans, who are seeking to take Republican-held seats, are noteworthy. Chrissy Houlahan, a retired Air Force officer, is a heavy favorite to capture a suburban Philadelphia district; ex-Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill is likely to win a New Jersey seat; and Amy McGrath, who was a Marine combat pilot, has a chance in Kentucky. Houlahan says she decided she had to run after attending the women’s march in Washington in January 2017 the day following Trump’s inauguration.
The rationale is the same for many of the former Clinton and Obama officials who are seeking to unseat Republicans this fall. The most prominent in this group is Donna Shalala, 77, Health and Human Services secretary under Clinton. She is a leading candidate for a Miami seat vacated by a Republican incumbent.
“Running for Congress never was in my plans,” said Shalala, who also served as president of the University of Miami. “But now I realize everything we fought for is at risk.”
Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of State for President Obama and a State Department official under Clinton, echoed this view when asked why he chose to run. “A funny thing happened in November 2016,” he said. America, he believes, “is in deep trouble.”
Malinowski, a former Washington director of Human Rights Watch, is one of two Democratic former diplomatic officials running against Republican incumbents in New Jersey. He’s challenging Rep. Leonard Lance in northern New Jersey. Andy Kim, who served on Obama’s National Security Council and was a strategist for Generals David Petraeus and John Allen in Afghanistan, is going against Rep. Tom MacArthur in central Jersey.
In Florida, Soderberg pledges that she would work with Republicans and the White House but says Trump has generated “a dysfunction beyond anything I’ve seen in my lifetime” in Washington.
She believes her national-security credentials, including her role in negotiating the Northern Ireland peace treaty, are an asset in her moderately conservative district. She is focusing, however, on domestic issues, the economy and the need “to get something done in Washington.”
Her overarching thought? “I never thought I’d have to fight for democracy at home.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.