Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has been challenged by conservatives before, but his race this year against two state senators has become so intense that the moderate Eastern Shore congressman teamed up last night with the man whose name is synonymous with the party's right wing: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The race between the nine-term congressman and state Sens. E.J. Pipkin and Andrew P. Harris has fast become a race to watch nationally, as each candidate has duked it out in expensive TV, radio and direct-mail advertising over whose positions most closely embody their party's mainstream.
"You have two challengers with significant name-recognition of their own, and there's always been a lot of resentment from the conservatives who say Wayne isn't conservative enough," said Salisbury University political science professor Harry Basehart.
The three men have drawn support from a wide spectrum: Gilchrest's fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives have been among his most important backers, providing key fundraising assistance and endorsements on the stump like that of Gingrich, who hosted a fundraiser for Gilchrest last night in Annapolis. Harris' candidacy has been bolstered by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Club for Growth, a national political action committee that helps conservative Republican candidates. And Pipkin, who as a multimillionaire has the ability to self-finance his campaign, has drawn strength from his populist stands on electricity rates and taxes and residual name-recognition from his unsuccessful 2006 run against Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
The vast spending thus far on the race and the mix of state and national Republican heavyweights who have backed the candidates have brought about one of the most intense primaries in years, analysts said, all before a Feb. 12 election that could draw high turnout because of the unsettled presidential race.
The divisive and expensive nature of the primary against two well-known challengers could make Gilchrest, a low-key former Marine, more vulnerable than he has been in years, analysts said. Or, they said, Pipkin and Harris could wind up canceling each other out.
"It's absolutely a very exciting race," said Michael J.G. Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Republicans were hurt so badly in the last election, I don't really understand why they want to get [Gilchrest] out of Congress. ... A fight is always a two-way street, and they could open the door to a strong challenger in the general election."
Former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said as much last night when he endorsed Gilchrest. In 2006, "the American people basically slapped us upside the head," he said, adding that they demand "we get it right. ... We cannot get there by trying to beat Republicans."
Gingrich praised Gilchrest's intellect and courage. "Wayne is an old friend," he said. "If only for his leadership on the Chesapeake Bay, he was a person worthy to be in Congress."
Although voters in the 1st District - which covers all of Maryland's Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil and Harford counties - tend to favor GOP candidates in national and statewide contests, there were slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans there before the 2006 gubernatorial election.
Many of those Democrats sided with Gilchrest in the general election, leading him to landslide victories. But this year, with what some believe is a strong Democratic field, including Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank Kratovil, Democrats seeking to build on recent election gains see an opening.
But whatever happens in November, one thing is sure: The fierce and negative tone in rhetoric and ads put out by Gilchrest, Harris and Pipkin and the third-party groups supporting them is unlikely to abate any time soon.
This week, the challengers - who sit just a short distance apart in the Senate chamber - talked over each other, even shouting at times, for the better part of 15 minutes on WHFS-FM's "Ed Norris Show," trading barbs about who more stridently opposed illegal immigration or the "tax and spend" agenda of Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"The lies end today," Pipkin said, calling in while Harris was a guest. When Harris tried to defend himself, Pipkin talked over him. "I have rhetoric and dishonesty from you, that's what I have. ... The truth squad is out, and Andy Harris is lying."
Norris had to put Pipkin on hold so Harris could respond.
"I urge all your voters to see how you're distorting my record," Harris said.
All three candidates have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attack ads highlighting each others' alleged weaknesses on Republican wedge issues.
Gilchrest, who supports abortion rights, has been attacked by conservatives for his support for a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq and a 2002 campaign finance reform bill that has been panned by many in the Republican establishment.