If a successful congressional campaign is built on supporters who donate money and time to a candidate, Republican Kenneth Kondner has been a lonely man for the past decade.
This year marks the sixth consecutive congressional election in which Kondner has ignored the odds and run in Maryland's 7th District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 10 to 1.
In each of the past five elections, the 59-year-old dental technician said, he has campaigned with little support from party leaders, fund-raisers, volunteers - or voters - for his efforts to unseat Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Cummings' predecessor, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, both Democrats.
Kondner, a self-described political conservative, has never received more than 20 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly African-American district, which includes much of the center of Baltimore and the western suburbs of Woodlawn, Catonsville and Randallstown in Baltimore County.
Kondner, a Woodlawn resident, vowed his 2000 campaign would be different. He would hold fund-raisers and rallies, and even launch a campaign Web site.
"I wanted to do all those things. I wanted to personally do better, or say to myself I did all the things I could do," Kondner said. "But that all went down the tubes."
In April, a month after handily winning the GOP nomination in the primary election, Kondner underwent surgery for blood clots in his legs, making it almost impossible for him to campaign. And in August, Kondner's brother was stabbed to death in North Baltimore.
"Quite frankly, my heart is not in this campaign now," Kondner said.
But Cummings said he is taking no chances: "I am going to campaign like my life depends on it."
Cummings said he plans to campaign aggressively for re-election on the national Democratic platform of education reform, a prescription drug benefit and Social Security reform, and his local priority of increased funding for drug treatment.
While Kondner said he would spend less than $5,000 on the campaign, the most recent campaign finance reports on file show that Cummings had more than $190,000 on hand.
Cummings, 49, a lawyer from West Baltimore, said he plans to transfer about $60,000 from his campaign fund to other Democratic congressional candidates to help the party retake the U.S. House of Representatives.
After serving 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, Cummings ran for the 7th District seat in 1995, when Mfume left Congress to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Cummings defeated 26 opponents in the March 1996 Democratic primary. A week later, he easily defeated Kondner, the Republican nominee, in a special election. In November of that year, Cummings again faced off against Kondner, this time in the regular general election, and again easily defeated him, by a 4-to-1 margin. In 1998, he routed Kondner again.
Cummings has been one of Congress' most liberal members and a steadfast supporter of President Clinton.
Though he disagreed with the president on welfare reform, Cummings helped rally blacks to the president's side during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton, in turn, visited New Psalmist Baptist Church in West Baltimore, where Cummings attends services, just before the general election in November 1998.
Since the last election, reports of Cummings' personal financial troubles have surfaced. At one point, he missed six straight mortgage payments totaling about $5,200 and faced foreclosure, while being paid $136,700 a year as a congressman. He said last year that the trouble stemmed from child support payments, but declined to comment further last week other than to say, "All debts are paid."
His name also has come up in the past year as federal prosecutors have brought three cases involving alleged campaign finance violations related to Cummings' first race for Congress. Cummings was not charged in the cases, and there is no indication the congressman knew about the donations.
But Kondner said he plans to exploit the issue of Cummings' campaign contributions - including more than $60,000 collected from political action committees since 1998 - if the two debate this month.
"Our politicians are prostituting themselves. They are buying votes," Kondner said, noting his platform also calls for term limits, tax cuts, school choice, increased military spending and a ban on "partial-birth abortions."
But in a recent interview, Kondner spent as much time criticizing the Republican establishment for "ignoring" his candidacy as he did Cummings or the Democrats.
"It is frustrating ... and it comes from Republicans," Kondner said. "You expect people to help, at least cooperate, but they don't and instead put roadblocks in your way."
Republican leaders said they understand Kondner's frustrations but need to save their resources for more competitive races. "There is only so much the party can do," said Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. "We have to allocate our resources in terms of getting ready for future races."
Political observers, however, said the GOP efforts will likely be futile.
"It is an inner-city, solidly African-American Baltimore constituency, and that is definitely a slam dunk for Democrats," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy analysis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College, put it more bluntly: "Elijah just has to maintain that body temperature of 98.6 degrees to be elected."