House challengers in Md. look to Cantor's loss for inspiration

Experts say a major upset unlikely in congressional races

June 22, 2014|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

When first-time House candidate Jonathan Goff Jr. was learning how to fill out a campaign finance report, an official at the Federal Election Commission handed him a sample filing from one of the most prominent members of Congress.

The name stamped on the front: Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and then-House majority leader.

"I was astounded," said Goff, who is running against incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Harris in Maryland's 1st Congressional District. "This was big money."

Cantor's unexpected loss to a conservative economist in Virginia's June 10 primary — despite raising more than $5 million — has given a measure of hope to little-known congressional candidates in Maryland, even though independent political observers see little chance of a similar upset Tuesday.

Though Maryland's political apparatus has focused on statewide primaries for governor and attorney general, six of eight incumbents in the House of Representatives face primary opponents. Besides Harris, five Democratic lawmakers face challenges: Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes of Baltimore County, Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County, Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.

In all, 35 congressional candidates are on the ballot.

For Goff, a Fallston resident, seeing political novice David Brat topple a moneyed incumbent like Cantor is motivating.

Moreover, it's not only Republicans who have drawn inspiration from the Virginia race.

"The situation here is very reflective of the situation there in Virginia's 7th District," said Warren Christopher, an Army veteran who is challenging Edwards in the 4th District primary. "Instead of creating jobs, we're losing jobs."

Still, the odds are long for challengers in Maryland and nationwide. Despite talk of anti-incumbent sentiment, fewer than 3 percent of House lawmakers lost primaries in the 2012 election cycle — and that includes member-on-member primaries that resulted from redistricting. In 2010, fewer than 1 percent of House incumbents lost primaries.

The candidates in Maryland are not as well positioned as Brat was. Though he could not match Cantor's fund-raising, Brat managed to raise more than $200,000 for his campaign and had about $84,000 on hand at the end of May. He also won endorsements from conservative celebrities such as radio host Laura Ingraham.

By contrast, all of Maryland's nonincumbent candidates combined have a little over $150,000 in the bank. And about 85 percent of that is held by two men, Democrat John LaFerla of the 1st District and Republican Daniel Bongino in the 6th District.

The political landscape in Virginia is also vastly different from that of Maryland, where Democrats control seven of eight seats. Democrats, for now at least, are less fractured than Republicans.

"Party really does matter, because Republicans have moved to the right much more than Democrats have moved to the left," said David Lublin, an American University government professor who writes a blog on Maryland politics.

That's not to say Maryland incumbents always beat back primary challengers.

In 2008, Edwards crushed eight-term incumbent Al Wynn with 59 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, and went on to Congress after winning a special election.

That same year, Harris beat nine-term incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest in the Republican primary. Harris lost in the general election but came back to win in 2010.

Harris, cognizant of his election history and the broader currents in congressional politics, has left little room for anyone to challenge him from the right. He has been a solid conservative vote and, this past week, announced he is running to lead one of the best-known conservative caucuses in the House.

"Republican voters in the 1st District and Congressman Harris share conservative principles of limited government, the rule of law, and personal responsibility," Harris spokesman Chris Meekins said in a statement.

The 1st District includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties.

Edwards, who couldn't be reached for comment, represents portions of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Observers say other factors are limiting the likelihood of an upset in this week's congressional primaries. Expected low voter turnout, a lack of experienced challengers and relatively new districts redrawn by Democrats in Annapolis in 2011 are partly driving that phenomena, said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland.

"The reason Republicans aren't really fielding credible candidates in most districts is because the districts have been drawn in a manner that basically makes it sure that a Republican can never win," he said.

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