David R. Brinkley has no problem with being called an establishment Republican. He's the party's leader in the Maryland Senate, a master of the state budget process and a pragmatist adept at bringing tax dollars back from Democratic-dominated Annapolis to Frederick and Carroll counties.
But the 20-year lawmaker is struggling to beat back an aggressive challenge from the tea party wing of the GOP. Del. Michael J. Hough contends that Brinkley is not ideologically pure enough for the General Assembly's 4th District.
Walter Mills, whose barbershop on Patrick Street is a hub of political conversation in Frederick, says his informal poll of customers in his chair shows that Brinkley is in deep trouble.
"My barbershop has six out of 10 rooting for Hough," said Miller, who said he's remaining neutral in a bitter battle between two men he likes and respects.
When state Democrats redrew the legislative district maps in 2011, they carved up Frederick County into two Senate districts. They drew the 3rd District to give the incumbent Democratic senator a good chance to win. They packed the 4th, which includes a small part of Carroll around Mount Airy, with as many Republicans as they could round up.
"This district's conservative. I feel they deserve a conservative state senator," said Hough, who at 34 is 20 years younger than Brinkley. "He's definitely part of the problem. He's a liberal Republican."
That description would come as a surprise to Annapolis insiders, who have seen Brinkley speak and vote against most of the high-profile initiatives of Gov. Martin O'Malley. Brinkley's record is conservative enough to have earned him the support of such groups as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Maryland Right-to-Life and the Maryland Farm Bureau.
That may not be enough cover, however. The three-term senator has cast some votes that have given Hough an opening to tell Republican voters that Brinkley is a pal of Democrats O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Brinkley also appears to have handed Hough an advantage by failing to raise much money despite ample warning that the freshman delegate was a political threat. Brinkley ended 2013 with only about $21,000 in the bank, while Hough had $115,000. This year, Hough has outspent Brinkley almost 3-to-1. Brinkley enters the final weeks before the June 24 primary with a cash advantage of $131,000 to $110,000, but only because he lent his campaign $100,000.
The key issue on which Hough and Brinkley part is the state budget. Hough, in line with the hard-edged partisanship of the House GOP caucus, has voted against every budget O'Malley submitted over the past four years. Brinkley, in keeping with the more collegial approach of Senate Republicans, has voted in favor of the governor's budgets in some years and against them in others.
Brinkley is unapologetic about his approach to the budget. By working with Democratic leaders, he said, he's been able to bring back vital spending for such needs as mental health care and high school construction. He said his willingness to vote for the budget gives him a seat at the table when decisions are made.
On a recent day in Mount Airy, Brinkley drove home that point in a meeting with two Carroll County education activists, both Republicans who want more money for their schools.
"You got to know how to play the game," he told them. "The issue is, are you going to have someone fighting to bring some of that money back or throw it away. You say, 'No, no, no, no,' they just chop you up and give it to someone else."
It was an argument that made sense to Kelly Frager, one of the education activists, who was meeting Brinkley for the first time. She felt that he had been honest with her. She said she would support him and recommend him to her neighbors.
"I need someone who is a little more central rather than someone who's on the extreme right," she said.
That day, Hough went campaigning door to door nearby, telling Republican voters he won't play the Annapolis game.
"The go-along, get-along strategy is not a good one," he said. Hough said Brinkley "pretends to fight" for conservative causes, then cuts a deal.
"It's like a completely rigged Kabuki theater," Hough said.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said the conservative activists he's talked with reject the Brinkley approach.
"They really see it as a sellout," he said.
One factor working against Brinkley, Eberly said, is that the 4th District is so safely Republican that GOP primary voters don't have to fear a Democratic victory.
"If that seat is almost guaranteed to be a Republican seat, then why settle for anybody less than the most conservative person?" he said.
David R. Brinkley
Job: State senator, financial planner
Family: Divorced, two children
Michael J. Hough
Job: State delegate, American Legislative Exchange Council fellow
Family: Married, three children