Pipkin's heavy spending fails to dent Mikulski's appeal

Poll of Maryland voters finds three-term senator has big lead on GOP rival

Election 2004

October 28, 2004|By JoAnna Daemmrich and David Nitkin | JoAnna Daemmrich and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Despite a huge infusion of personal cash and a barrage of negative television ads, Republican millionaire E.J. Pipkin has been unable to overcome the personal popularity of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a new poll conducted for The Sun shows.

Mikulski, 68, a fixture in Maryland politics and the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate, leads her lesser-known rival by a 37 percentage point margin, according to the poll released today.

Two-thirds of the 602 registered voters surveyed by Washington-based Ipsos-Public Affairs favored electing Mikulski to a fourth term. Mikulski benefits from widespread name recognition and a 70 percent approval rating, the survey found. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Republicans had expected an uphill battle to defeat the veteran vote-getter. But Pipkin, 47, a wealthy first-term state senator from the Eastern Shore, hoped to capitalize on Republican gains in Maryland, and is spending heavily on an advertising campaign that has energized the once-quiet race.

Nonetheless, the poll shows Pipkin may fare little better than Mikulski's previous challengers, who have never received more than 35 percent of the vote.

"I wonder just how much more money you'd have to have," said James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist. "These poll numbers are really demoralizing. There's no other way to read it."

Mikulski enjoys a blunt-spoken, populist image that appeals to many Marylanders. The one-time Baltimore social worker may be a Washington deal-maker now, but she is still seen by many as an outsider championing the little guy.

"I love Mikulski," said Edward Wilson, 82, a retired Navy officer and registered Republican who lives in Severna Park. "I think she's a good little fighter. The other guy makes a lot of sense, but I don't think he has a chance."

Campaigning in Western Maryland yesterday, Mikulski said she would "take nothing for granted," but thought the race was going well.

"People are very enthusiastic about my re-election," she said in a telephone interview. "They like my positive agenda. They like that I have this framework for the future."

Pipkin's campaign questioned the poll results and said he would do much better in next week's election.

"This is basically suggesting that the Democrats in the area are solidified behind her and so are the Republicans, which is ludicrous," said David Brunckhorst, Pipkin's campaign manager.

Buoyed by the support of hopeful Republicans - and more than $1 million of his own money that he has poured into the campaign - Pipkin, a former junk bond trader, has succeeded better than Mikulski's previous contenders in achieving at least the name recognition needed to launch a serious challenge.

Nearly a third of the registered voters surveyed said they had a favorable impression of Pipkin. That is a significant increase since January, when a Sun poll of 1,200 likely voters found just 7 percent had a favorable view.

Ronald Shank, a 45-year-old youth pastor in Hagerstown, is among those who back Pipkin.

"I like the fact that he is willing to listen to some of the Western Maryland viewpoints," Shank said. "Sometimes, I feel we don't get heard or our voice doesn't carry as much over Baltimore."

But even more of the voters polled had a negative impression of Pipkin. His negative ratings have climbed to 35 percent, compared with Mikulski's 28 percent, which political observers say resulted from Mikulski fighting back, in debates and television ads of her own.

While Pipkin has mostly spent his own money, Mikulski has relied on $5.6 million in campaign donations from individuals and special interests.

"It shows the benefits of campaigning," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "When Pipkin went onto the air with his ads, she began to campaign, and it's paying off."

Crenson questioned Pipkin's strategy to promote his strong support of President Bush. In heavily Democratic Maryland, he said, "Bush probably has negative coattails."

The ads have backfired with some of those surveyed, who said they were especially turned off by the suggestion that Mikulski's record in office has led to increased pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Her being bad for the bay, that was ridiculous," said Bruce Snider, a 73-year-old retired financial planner who lives in Gaithersburg. "I don't care for those TV ads."

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