The turning point for Mike Kelly came last spring when a General Motors Co. regional manager called, asking the longtime Pennsylvania dealer whether he wanted to be part of the new GM.
"What do you mean?" Kelly asked. He was informed that his Chevrolet business would survive but that GM intended to dump Kelly's Cadillac store come 2010.
The news put Kelly on a path that led the former Notre Dame football player and dealer's son to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"I'm angry, and I'm disappointed that people who have known us for many, many years could think so little of us," Kelly said of GM's rejection, which he appealed through arbitration. "It's not right -- I don't cost them a penny."
In early March, Kelly got one of GM's reinstatement offers. He now will be able to keep his Cadillac business, but Kelly still is running for Congress.
He began thinking seriously about a run last August. Worried about slow cash-for-clunkers reimbursements, Kelly said he had trouble getting help from his U.S. representative's office.
"What frustrated me most of all was the lack of understanding of how important cash is to our business," said Kelly, who also has Hyundai and Kia franchises in Butler, Pa. He's now running against that Democratic incumbent.
Kelly, 61, is one of at least five car dealers running for Congress in 2010. They join three former dealers already in the House and running for re-election.
Three of the new dealer candidates had stores rejected by GM or Chrysler Group during the automakers' 2009 bankruptcy restructuring. Another rejected dealer, Colleen McDonald, is running for the state Senate in Michigan.
The dealers have varied stories behind their entry into politics. But there are some common themes: All are Republicans. All want smaller government and a balanced budget. And all said they have been influenced by the unprecedented government involvement in the auto industry over the past 18 months.
"What happened to the car industry was clearly one of the darkest days in American capitalism," said Jim Renacci, who is running in Ohio's 16th District. He is majority owner of Renacci-Doraty Chevrolet in Wadsworth, Ohio.