Not enough cash for so many candidates

Maryland Votes 2006

May 14, 2006|By DAVID NITKIN | DAVID NITKIN,SUN REPORTER

Maryland's busy election season grew more complex last week when Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. announced he would not seek a sixth term, and the race for state comptroller drew another high-profile entrant in Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

But the politicians who are just starting to build campaigns to replace Curran, challenge Comptroller William Donald Schaefer or run for a growing number of vacant General Assembly seats are confronting a harsh reality: the potential difficulty in raising the money needed to be competitive.

State campaign finance rules limit individuals and corporations to a $4,000 maximum donation to a single candidate during a four-year cycle, and a combined $10,000 to all candidates.

Many politicians have grabbed the maximum amount from their regular donors. Incumbent Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s unsurpassed fundraising machine is fueled by near-nightly, low-overhead house parties. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, launched his campaign for governor in September, about a year before the primary election.

Squeezed dry

"There ain't much blood left in the turnip," said Robert G. Johnson, a lobbyist and former state Democratic Party executive director.

"Anybody who has been involved [politically] is out of money right now," he said. "I have never seen the vacuum start as early as it did, with a competitive governor's race starting almost from the day Ehrlich was sworn in."

In addition to picking a governor, attorney general and comptroller, Maryland voters must choose a replacement for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. A crowded field has lined up to run for Sarbanes' seat, and a number of candidates have entered the 3rd Congressional District race.

The donor drain means that candidates who have amassed sizable bankrolls have an advantage. Money is needed to produce and air television ads and direct-mail pieces, and pay the salaries of managers, consultants and political directors.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, a Democrat, is scheduled to announce his attorney general's bid tomorrow.

As of January, he had $1.5 million in his account, according to state elections board records, an amount that is giving other primary challengers pause.

Gansler said he hasn't had trouble collecting donations because he has been tapping lawyers and law firms, while the gubernatorial candidates rely heavily on business groups and unions.

"I don't raise money from the traditional sources," Gansler said. "I have not run up against people who are maxed out. I think it is a problem in other races. ... The races began earlier, and the volume of money being raised is out of this world. It's disproportionate to anything in the past."

Far from goal

Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle, a Republican who said last week he is running for attorney general, had $6,400 as of January, a tiny fraction of the $1 million to $2 million he says he wants.

Ehrlich is backing Rolle, but the prosecutor said the governor has not promised to help him raise money.

As he embarks on his fundraising, "there will be people I'm sure who have reached that limit," Rolle said, adding, "I've got some good connections who can get some decent, high-profile people who can come in and do events."

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who was the first Democrat to announce a primary challenge to Schaefer, said he is not relying on typical donors to fund his bid.

He is reaching out to small donors, he said, who are not part of the state's political power structure.

"For me, the rules don't really apply," he said. "I'm raising money hand over fist. I'm well on my way to the million-dollar goal."

Turning to voters

For state Sen. James Brochin, a first-term Baltimore County Democrat facing a challenge from former County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a well-known Republican recruited by Ehrlich, constituents in the district provide the best untapped source of funds.

"If you ask the big-money people who are notorious for giving, then a lot of times you hear, `I'm maxed out and I can't help you,'" Brochin said.

The increasingly crowded state races mean that those who work hardest at raising money will benefit most, he said.

"What it means more than anything is the [candidates] willing to stay on the phone, and who literally lock themselves in their campaign office from 9 to 5, are the ones who are going to get a better shot," Brochin said.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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