"Are you tired of having Congress raise your taxes?" wonders the announcer in the political advertisement airing on WCBM radio in Baltimore. "Are you tired of having Ben Cardin raise your taxes to fund his pay raise?"
"It's time to elect Harwood Nichols . . ."
Mr. Nichols, 48, a GOP candidate and Baltimore banker who preaches "financial accountability," may be in the debit column when it comes to name recognition and campaign funds in his fight against Mr. Cardin, a well-known two-term Democrat. But he is hoping the ad will tap the voter discontent and anti-incumbent zeal that political analysts see sweeping the nation.
"It feeds on the anti-incumbent thing," notes Mr. Nichols, a West Baltimore resident making his first run for political office.
He says he senses a let's-make-a-change-in-Congress sentiment in his travels around the 3rd District. "Some people will say, 'I think we ought to throw them all out,' " he said.
"There's clearly an anti-incumbent mood," agreed Mr. Cardin. But he believes that his constituents and those of his colleagues will not "vote against incumbents because they're incumbents." Rather, voters will consider how they've been represented. "I'm on record as to how to deal with the issues," Mr. Cardin said. "I'd like to see how [Mr. Nichols] deals with them."
Throughout Maryland, congressional challengers are counting on constituents who are angered by the congressional pay raises, the savings-and-loan bailout, the stalled budget talks -- and now the successful budget agreement, which translates into higher taxes.
"I think there will be an anti-incumbent vote," said Robert P. Duckworth, a 50-year-old Crofton resident who left his administrative job at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to run against Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, whom he says is "part of the deficit problem with his tax-and-spend votes."
"Everywhere I go, I hear 'We're going to change things,' " said Mr. Duckworth, on his maiden political voyage. "The ordinary citizen is angry and very confused about Congress and the political process."
"They think they got a raw deal with the increase in taxes," agreed Christopher P. Fiotes, Jr., 56, a Gaithersburg real estate company owner and the GOP challenger to Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-Md.-6th.
The voices of discontent are particularly shrill in Western Maryland, he said.
"If everyone came up [to] vote, I think you'd see a change," he said.
Lee Breuer, 59, a GOP candidate running against Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, said she has seen anti-incumbent fliers being distributed in the district.
The angry-voter mood may dovetail with the platforms of these candidates, who attack "special interest" donations to the incumbents and share a common call for lower taxes and cutting government "waste." They all would like to see Congress rescind its 33 percent pay raise.
"People say we're appalled that [members of Congress are] getting raises in January," agreed James Walker Jr., a 42-year-old Democrat and Bethesda real estate broker who is hoping to unseat Representative Constance Morella, R-Md.-8th. "My proposal is [that the raises] be held up as long as people [must] pay more taxes."
Mr. Walker also says that Congress "sold out" on the budget accord by backing away from a proposed surtax on millionaires.
"I've run into more people who say it's time for a change," said Ronald P. Bowers, 58, a Lutherville Democrat running against Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd. "There are very few people who argue with me that the incumbents are a better choice."
Kevin Kondner, a 48-year-old GOP candidate from Woodlawn who is mounting his first political race in a quest to defeat Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, also said that voters he has approached are "fed up" with Congress.
As he tours the Baltimore district, from Park Circle to Coppin State College, Mr. Kondner is attacking the congressional pay raise and calling for deeper cuts in government spending, from foreign aid to the National Endowment for the Arts.
But he doubts the anti-incumbent feelings will mean much come Nov. 6. "It's 'Throw the rascal out -- but my congressman is not a rascal.' That's what I'm hearing," said Mr. Kondner. "I really don't see anything happening in Maryland."
As Mr. McMillen met with voters last Sunday after voting for the budget accord, many grumbled about Congress and the budget agreement he had supported less than 24 hours earlier. But no one said they would vote against Mr. McMillen.
And Mr. Kondner, the GOP challenger in the 7th District, noted that during the primary, he stood in his polling place for 12 hours and watched what he estimated at 25 percent of the registered voters stroll in to cast ballots.
"A lot of people talk," lamented Mr. Bowers, the Democratic challenger in the 2nd District, "and don't vote."