Political underdogs sometimes beat odds

As challengers eye primary, 2 Md. congressmen's roads prove upsets can happen

March 05, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Neither Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Kent County house painter, nor Roscoe G. Bartlett, a dairy farmer from Frederick, was given much chance of winning when he ran for office.

Both expected to face entrenched incumbents. Gilchrest was called an untried unknown, Bartlett a two-time loser.

Today, both are called congressman.

History offers a flicker of hope for all those little-known candidates who have been dismissed -- or even ridiculed -- as they scramble for congressional nominations.

"It can happen if you want it bad enough and you have the right stuff," says Jim Dornan, a campaign strategist for Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1994 and 1998.

On Tuesday, voters for both parties will go to the polls in Maryland to choose their party's candidates for the November congressional races.

Most political pros predict the elections will extend the tenure of the nine Maryland incumbents -- one senator and eight House members -- whose seats are up.

Conventional wisdom confers credibility on candidates who offer strong name recognition, a proven ability to raise money, and a public record that squares neatly with constituents' views. Few of this year's challengers fit that mold.

But you never can tell.

Dornan is chief of staff to Rep. George Nethercutt of Washington state, a three-term Republican lawmaker who was seen as a laughable long shot when he challenged Democrat Thomas S. Foley in 1994. Foley, who had served for 30 years, was speaker of the House.

But Nethercutt caught a few breaks that year, riding deep-seated anger against Democrats.

Many of the Marylanders seeking their party's blessings Tuesday say they can achieve similarly confounding triumphs.

`A fresh face'

There are eight candidates seeking to become the Republican nominee for Senate against four-term Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes.

"I think the party is looking for a fresh face and a fresh start," says first-time GOP candidate Rob Sobhani, a 40-year-old Iranian-born Montgomery County consultant. He has helped American firms obtain contracts in former Soviet republics.

Such optimism is tougher to find among more seasoned politicians. Only three state officials have entered this year's congressional races. Dundalk Del. Jacob J. Mohorovic Jr., a Democrat, hopes to challenge Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.

GOP Del. Thomas E. Hutchins of Charles County appears likely to secure his party's nomination to face Southern Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat.

And Del. Bennett Bozman of the Eastern Shore is expected to best his Democratic rivals to take on Gilchrest.

The best-financed challenger may well prove to be longtime Democratic lobbyist Terry Lierman of Montgomery County, a former Senate aide who owns an online pharmacy.

Lierman says he has raised more than $250,000 and expects to spend more than $1 million.

If he becomes the nominee, Lierman will be the latest in a long line of Democrats with Washington ties who have taken on the daunting task of trying to defeat Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Republican who commands considerable affection throughout the deeply Democratic district.

The stories of the two lawmakers representing Maryland's bookends -- the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland -- may offer the most illuminating primer on upsets.

It helps if the front-runners stumble.

From dreamer to iconoclast

In 1988, Gilchrest had just returned to the Eastern Shore from a stint as a federal ranger in northern Idaho.

He was restless and wanted to try something new. With only $25 in his pocket toward the $100 filing fee on the day of the deadline, he promised to send a check covering the difference, and registered to run against Democratic Rep. Roy P. Dyson, an odds-on favorite to retain the seat he had held since 1981.

But during the campaign season, questions emerged about Dyson's campaign expenditures and his links to defense contractors. Then Dyson's chief of staff leaped to his death from the 24th-story window of a New York City hotel after allegations were made about his aggressive personal interest in male staffers.

On Election Day, Gilchrest lost by a mere 1,600 votes to Dyson.

A second run

Smelling blood, party elders pressured Gilchrest to forgo a second run at Dyson in 1990.

"There were a whole host of people who told me that they had been waiting their whole life for this chance, and I was just doing it on a whim," Gilchrest says. "I said, `Sorry, it's my whim.' "

Gilchrest was outspent nearly 3-to-1, but he won 57 percent of the vote. Once belittled as a drifter and a dreamer, Gilchrest is now regarded as a thoughtful iconoclast -- a fiscal conservative who is outspoken on environmental issues. Dyson has managed something of a comeback: He now serves in the state Senate.

Ready, willing and able

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