If a candidate ran for Congress but no one inside the Beltway paid attention, did it ever happen?

Virginia Democrat Adam Cook didn’t plan to find out the answer to that riddle but, unfortunately for him, he is similar to dozens of congressional candidates every cycle, who put their lives on hold and make personal sacrifices to run, only to be ignored by leaders of their own party. On paper, Cook looked like an ideal candidate: a young attorney, first-time candidate (read “outsider”), and veteran of the war in Afghanistan who comes from a family of ministers.

It’s a potentially appealing profile for Virginia’s 1st District, which stretches from Prince William County to Newport News, nestled near Northern Virginia and suburban Richmond—two of the most critical areas in one of the most important swing states for the presidential election. But, like so many other congressional districts, the 1st District was gerrymandered, in this case drawn by Republicans. President George W. Bush won the district by a whopping 22 points in 2004 and Sen. John McCain won it by seven points four years later, even as he lost statewide.

“The history in past elections in the district is tough,” Cook said in a September interview, two months before Election Day. “Our whole thing is to go after veterans.”

The United States Air Force veteran believed he stacked up well against an incumbent who never served in the military in the third most populous veteran district in the country.

“I talk about how he’s a nice guy,” said Cook about incumbent Republican Rep. Rob Wittman. “This isn’t a pistols at dawn situation.”

What Wittman possessed was a laughable financial advantage and the air of inevitability, which virtually ensured that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wouldn’t come in to level the playing field with an influx of cash. Cook was left to rely on family, friends and a few loyal supporters. But while he was consistently ignored by the national party and national media, for a brief moment, Cook had the national stage to himself, literally.

The National Stage
On the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Cook was recognized on stage along with about 50 other military veterans. Cook stood in the back row, but as the group left the stage, the aspiring candidate lingered a little longer than the rest. He was the last to exit stage right, but not until he waved to the nearly 20,000 party faithful.

The normally reserved Cook was soaking it in. Wait, did he just point to Michelle Obama?

A day and a half earlier, the entire appearance was in doubt. With the threat of punishing rains, convention officials moved the pinnacle evening from Bank of America Stadium to the smaller, indoor Time Warner Cable Arena, and much of the program was up in the air. Some candidates running in similarly Republican districts or states avoided the convention like the plague because of the potential political fallout of being tied to the liberal national party.

But even though Cook was running in a district that President Obama lost by seven points in 2008, his campaign decided the underdog candidate didn’t have much to lose. At lunchtime on Wednesday, the unassuming Virginia Democrat sat alone near the mini-food court in the Charlotte Convention Center. Slightly sleep deprived from driving down from the Commonwealth that morning, Cook was energized from the day before when a joint appearance with Wittman at a picnic in the Northern Neck turned into a pseudo debate.