Open field

Congressional candidates strive to stand out in the 3rd District

Maryland Votes 2006


Most open their doors a bit confused, even quizzical.

For Catherine Benton, 85, the tall man standing on her driveway one recent afternoon was recognizable as the "medical guy" from Baltimore. But like many Anne Arundel voters in the sprawling 3rd Congressional District, the details of the race are not so clear.

"I may vote for Beilencome. Am I saying that right?" she asks, moments after Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, one of the many contenders for the Democratic nomination, leaves her driveway.

"Or Ben Cardin. I do like Ben Cardin," she adds.

Only the Democratic congressman is running for Senate, not for re-election, she's reminded, making the race for the seat, open for the first time in 20 years, a free-for-all.

Such are the challenges of campaigning in an oddly configured district spilling into portions of four counties and composed of an enormously diverse voter base.

Eight Democrats and eight Republicans are vying for the congressional district, which was stretched into its current shape by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 2002 redistricting map. Many believe the reapportionment was in part an attempt to punish Cardin, who flirted with the idea of challenging Glendening for governor in 1998.

Still, Cardin has won handily since then, and Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in the district - a reality that political observers say will make a GOP win difficult.

The district's Democratic voters are evenly divided among Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel, with the remaining 10 percent in Howard County.

In a primary where only one candidate holds an elected public office, this is a race where the undecided voter dominates. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Anne Arundel County, where candidates are stepping up their campaigning efforts, relying on local officials, politicians and even athletic coaches to increase their profile in an area that could prove to be the ultimate battleground in the Sept. 12 primary.

"Anne Arundel is the place to be," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I think Anne Arundel County is really going to be the deciding area."

Aside from perennial candidate John Rea, none of the Democrats are from Anne Arundel, though one has significant work experience in the county. Baltimore County state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger is the only candidate who has won an election before.

Also running on the Democratic side are Beilenson, former Baltimore City health commissioner; John P. Sarbanes, an attorney and son of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes; businessman Oz Bengur; Kevin O'Keeffe, a former high-level government aide in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County; Andy Barth, a former WMAR-TV reporter; and Mishonda M. Baldwin, an attorney and retired Army officer.

The difficulty in campaigning in Anne Arundel is that it is an increasingly conservative district. This is a county where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, won 65 percent of the vote in 2002 and where the Republican base has been steadily growing.

A Sun poll released last week showed that 48 percent of Anne Arundel voters say Republicans are better able to handle the most important problems facing the state, while 36 percent picked Democrats. Statewide, the numbers were reversed: 47 percent of likely Maryland voters say Democrats are better attuned to problems, while 36 percent named Republicans.

Conservative county

And if Anne Arundel is the place to be for the Democrats right now, its role in the Republican primary is even more decisive. Nearly half of the district's Republican voters are in Anne Arundel.

Physician Gary Applebaum, the leading Republican candidate in raising funds, is beginning his campaigning here.

With many of the Democratic candidates falling to the left of the spectrum, appealing to Anne Arundel voters can pose candidates with a marketing challenge.

"The county is actually very conservative," said Robert J. DiPietro, former mayor of Laurel who previously worked for County Executive Janet S. Owens. "But they're Reagan Democrats. They are generally very strong on fiscal conservative politics.

"They are very educated and astute so it'll be tough for candidates to repackage themselves."

Candidates will likely seize on issues like the environment that will resonate with conservative and progressive Democrats, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based public opinion research firm.

"You don't want to run as a liberal Democrat there," he said. "You want to avoid associations with harder left-wing groups.

"You need to moderate your rhetoric and positioning at least to stay in tow in parts of this district," he added.

Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, is spending a lot of time in Annapolis, where her name recognition is elevated, said campaign manager Lisa Nissley. Annapolis has a more progressive base than most other parts of Anne Arundel, political observers say.

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