Races for Congress in Md. are among tightest in nation

Elections in 2 districts are seen as pivotal to fight for control of House

October 02, 2002|By Jeff Barker and Andrew A.Green | Jeff Barker and Andrew A.Green,SUN STAFF

Maryland is home to two of the nation's closest congressional races, a new poll shows, and both figure prominently in the struggle for control of the House of Representatives.

The districts - one in the Baltimore area, the other in the Washington suburbs - are held by Republicans, giving state Democrats a rare opportunity to pick up two seats in the Nov. 5 election.

In the 2nd District, former GOP Rep. Helen Delich Bentley - with significant crossover support from Democrats - leads Democratic Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger by two percentage points, 42 percent to 40 percent, according to the Maryland Poll of likely voters.

"You cannot find a closer congressional election anywhere in the country," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the poll for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers.

In the 8th District, eight-term Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County finds herself in the unaccustomed position of trailing - although narrowly - five weeks before the Nov. 5 election.

Democrat Christopher Van Hollen Jr. leads Morella by three percentage points, 43 percent to 40 percent, according to the poll. Many Democratic voters say they admire the liberal Morella but won't vote for her this time because they are focused on electing a Democratic House, the poll found.

The polling was conducted Sept. 25-27 from a sample of 480 people in the 2nd District and 495 in the 8th. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percent.

Bentley's and Van Hollen's leads are within the margin of error, making the races statistical dead heats - and ensuring that the national parties will continue to pour in resources to try to swing the districts into their respective columns.

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to assume House leadership.

"The Republicans have handed us two great opportunities in Maryland," said Kim Rubey, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.

In the 8th, Van Hollen has events scheduled for today with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Friday with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Morella held a fund-raiser with President Bush in June.

In the 2nd, the Bentley campaign is about to begin airing a spot showing her in the White House with Bush and on the campaign trail with Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the incumbent who is vacating his 2nd District seat to run for governor.

Both districts are heavily Democratic - at least measured by voter registration - but have histories of backing Republican candidates. The last Democrat to win the 2nd District was Clarence D. Long, who lost the seat in 1984 to Bentley. She surrendered the seat after five terms to run for governor, but lost.

The 8th District hasn't been in Democratic hands since former Rep. Michael Barnes stepped down to run for the Senate in 1986.

But this year, the poll shows Democrats have reason to hope of finally knocking off Morella, 71. While she remains well-liked - earning a 77 percent "favorable" rating - her popularity might not guarantee votes.

That's largely because 66 percent of Democrats believe it especially important to elect somebody from their party this year, according to the survey.

"If you are an incumbent member of Congress and you had a popularity rating that Connie Morella has - among a mostly Democratic district-you would think you would be clear sailing for re-election," Haller said. "This is one of the most unusual congressional races you will ever see. These very sophisticated voters are seeing much greater stakes in this particular election."

Jane Tolton, 51, of Rockville, is among those Democratic voters who like Morella but don't plan to vote for her next month.

"Connie's been great and everything. She's done good work for federal employees," said Tolton, a computer specialist with the U.S. government. "But I'm so tired of a Republican House."

Tony Caligiuri, Morella's campaign manager, says that few prognosticators are predicting the House will change hands and that voters shouldn't base their decision on that assumption. If the House remains in GOP control, "then who do you want representing us in that political landscape - Connie Morella or a freshman Democrat?"

Morella's campaign has been reminding voters of her constituent work and liberal-leaning endorsements - anything to get voters' attention focused on the candidate.

Caligiuri said he knew all along that, in a district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, Morella would be seriously challenged. Democrats padded their margin by about five percent during redistricting, in which the seat's boundaries were shifted this year by state Democrats.

"We expected this thing to go down to the margin of error as soon as the [Sept. 10] primary was over, and to stay there," Caligiuri said.

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