GOP's Morella launches campaign

Incumbent is confident as Democrats target seat in redrawn 8th District

May 12, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

GLEN ECHO - Rep. Constance A. Morella, one of Maryland's most popular Republicans, launched her campaign yesterday for a ninth term representing a district that Democrats have made a prime target in their quest to retake the House.

The Montgomery County congresswoman struck a defiant tone as she formally announced that she will seek re-election to the 8th District seat despite Democratic efforts to make the redrawn district virtually Republican-proof.

"I suspect there might be a few political partisans in Annapolis who hoped this day would never come," said Morella, charging that Democratic leaders tried to "gerrymander me into retirement."

"They underestimated my resolve and, more importantly, they underestimated your resolve," she told several hundred cheering supporters at Glen Echo Park.

The race will be closely watched nationally as Democrats attempt to erase a six-seat deficit and seize control of the House for the first time since 1994.

"This is clearly a race Democrats must win if they have any hope of regaining the House," said Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Media, money and hoopla will be the three ingredients."

Morella, perhaps the most liberal Republican in the House of Representatives, has frustrated Democrats for years by holding a seat they believe should rightfully be theirs.

Montgomery County is otherwise a Democratic stronghold, but the 71-year-old congresswoman has held on with a combination of personality, constituent service and independence from the GOP line.

In election after election, Democrats have entered the campaign with high hopes - only to watch Morella trounce their candidate with more than 60 percent of the vote. By the late 1990s, even the most popular Democratic elected officials were reluctant to risk their political future in a race against her.

The vote two years ago was different, however. A little known but well-financed lobbyist named Terry Lierman held Morella to 52 percent of the vote by making control of the House the main issue of his campaign. This year, two locally well known Democratic legislators and a high-ranking former Clinton administration official are battling for a nomination that appears well worth the risk.

One of them is Del. Mark K. Shriver, cousin of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

With money aplenty, Shriver is regarded by some as the favorite, but state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and former U.S. trade negotiator Ira Shapiro are running energetic campaigns. A fourth Democrat, lawyer Deborah Vollmer, has raised little money and is not expected to be a factor in the race.

Unless the courts intervene to change the map, whichever Democrat wins the September primary will be helped by redistricting.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and leading Democratic legislators redrew the 8th District to make it so Democratic that even Morella would find it hard to hang on.

Gone are many Republican-leaning precincts in the west and north county. Added are Democrat-rich precincts in eastern Montgomery, along with a swath of Prince George's County where Morella is a relative stranger.

David Paulson, communications director for the Maryland Democratic Party, said the new territory in Prince George's votes about 90 percent Democratic. He said the party is having a vigorous primary because the possibility of beating Morella is "beyond real."

"The Democratic Party down there is going nuts with excitement," he said.

Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery Democrat who is retiring from the House of Delegates, is bullish about the party's chances.

"We have three very talented candidates. I think Connie is definitely in her last term. I think she would lose to any of them," Kagan said.

Wittmann, however, calls the race a toss-up - with the edge to Morella.

"Connie Morella survived with [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich as head of the Republican Party," he noted.

Morella said yesterday that she welcomes the new territory because "I like meeting new people."

"We're going to hold hands and stick together, and victory will be so sweet," she said.

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