For most of the past decade, well-known Montgomery County Democrats have been ducking a race with Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella and leaving their party's nomination to second-stringers.
State Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., one of the Democrats' rising stars in Annapolis, announced yesterday that he is jumping into the race to seize the 8th District congressional seat held by Morella since 1987.
The two-term senator's move sets up a likely primary battle next fall with another young Democrat from Montgomery, state Del. Mark K. Shriver, who announced his candidacy last month. Morella's tight grip on the seat has long been a source of frustration to Democrats, who hold a commanding lead in registered voters in the district.
The entry of a second formidable elected official into the Democratic primary race reflects a strong perception in the party that Morella is vulnerable to a challenge in 2002.
Morella, 70, has held on by compiling one of the most liberal voting records among House Republicans. In the 1990s, she routinely dispatched little-known Democratic opponents with 60 percent of the vote or more.
But last year, a well-financed lobbyist named Terry Lierman held Morella to 52 percent of the vote after running a campaign based on the theme that Montgomery County should elect a Democrat to help end Republican control of the House.
Others entering the fray
Lierman's near miss has encouraged other Democrats to consider a race. Besides Van Hollen and Shriver, local party activists Ira Shapiro and Deborah Vollmer have declared their candidacies.
Morella's woes could be compounded by redistricting. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders are expected to carve out a district that is all but impossible for a Republican - even one as moderate as Morella - to win.
Her chances might be better under a plan floated by some Democrats that would carve out two Montgomery-dominated districts - one in Van Hollen's home area, the other in Shriver's. But state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor have expressed doubts about that proposition.
`Running on my record'
Van Hollen, 42, said yesterday that he is in the race no matter where the district lines are drawn. "I'll be running on my record of leadership in Annapolis," he said.
Highly respected among colleagues, he has successfully sponsored legislation on the environment, education and other issues. Last year he served as floor leader for Glendening's gun safety bill.
Miller called Van Hollen "without a doubt our best hope of taking back this seat." But Shriver, 37, has more than a few accomplishments he can point to - as well as some political assets Van Hollen can only dream of.
The two-term delegate has carved out a niche for himself as a leader on issues related to early childhood development, the disabled and mental retardation. "No question he's got the credentials to be a very effective congressman," Taylor said.
Shriver's political pedigree
Shriver's political career hasn't been hurt by his pedigree as the son of R. Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and cousin of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Van Hollen is an able fund-raiser, but Shriver can tap into the vast resources of the Kennedy family's national network of supporters.
Shriver said he will run a grass-roots campaign based on his record. "Working hard is not foreign to me, and I welcome the challenge both in the primary and the general," he said.
Morella, who is also being mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
"She's focusing on policy, not politics," said spokesman Jonathan Dean. "She'll absolutely be running for something in 2002."