A wealthy Potomac businessman whose very candidacy challenged state Democratic leaders won a hotly contested congressional primary in Western Maryland on Tuesday, setting up a battle for the seat in November that will help decide control of the House of Representatives.
John Delaney, a banker and first-time candidate, managed to topple state Sen. Rob Garagiola in the race, even though leading Democrats in Annapolis such as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had the legislator in mind when they redrew the 6th Congressional District last year to make it more competitive.
Roscoe G. Bartlett in November in a contest that is likely to be among the most expensive and closely watched in the country. Democrats are eyeing the district as a rare opportunity to pick off a GOP incumbent, while Republicans have vowed to vigorously defend it.
"There's more work to do," said Delaney, who was greeted by chants of "John, John, John" as he spoke to supporters in Montgomery County shortly after 10:30 p.m. "We have to pull our party together, which is something I'm so looking forward to doing."
Garagiola told his supporters that the focus now must be on capturing the seat for Democrats. "We have a mission to take back this Congress," Garagiola said.
In other races, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, easily fended off an intraparty challenge from state Sen. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's County. Other incumbent members of Congress, including Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes from the Baltimore area, also won.
"The choice, I think, is going to be clear," said Cardin, who is considered safe for re-election in November, given that Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 enrollment advantage in the state. "You saw the way I ran my primary — I plan to do the same thing in the general election, taking the issues to Maryland voters. We're not going to sit back."
But it was the Democratic primary in Western Maryland that captured national attention. Together, Democrats raised more than $3.5 million for the chance to run in November. And that is likely to be a small amount compared with the cost of running a general election campaign in the district.
"It's a seat Democrats need to win if they're going to take back the majority," said David Wasserman, who follows House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. He rates the district as one of just five in the nation where Democrats have a chance to pick up a seat. "After all, they designed it for that purpose."
The competition in the Sixth was a direct result of last year's redistricting, in which Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis turned the former Republican stronghold into a swing district by redrawing its boundaries. Overnight, it became a district in which 57 percent of voters backed President Barack Obama in 2008, compared with 41 percent in the old district.
To accomplish that reversal, mapmakers cut short the district's eastward sprawl into Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties, instead pushing most of that rural — and Republican — territory into the 1st District, which is represented by GOP Rep. Andy Harris. The new 6th District now scoops up heavily Democratic neighborhoods in Western Montgomery County. It also includes Frederick.
Bartlett said he is prepared to defend the seat in the general election. He said his polling shows the district is not as competitive as many Democrats and independent observers have suggested. Many voters who backed Obama in 2008, he said, have become disaffected because of the stalled economy.
"There are a lot of conservatives who are registered Democrat," Bartlett said. "We believe that the constituents of this district want a smaller government…and we're going to continue running" on that message.
While Bartlett focused much of his attention on Frederick County and Western Maryland, the Democratic race largely came down to a fight for voters in Montgomery County. Garagiola was aided in that effort by endorsements from every major union in the state. Delaney countered that support with an aggressive radio and television ad campaign — and more than $1.7 million of his own money.
It was "a ground assault versus an air attack," Wasserman said.
The nomination had long been considered Garagiola's to lose, but Delaney mounted a vigorous challenge that gained momentum in the waning weeks of the race. Garagiola, a 39-year-old Germantown attorney, had support from many state party leaders, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the second-most-powerful House Democrat.
Delaney, a 48-year-old banker who lives about block outside the district, secured the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton — a beneficiary of Delaney's previous political fundraising — Prince George's County Rep. Donna F. Edwards and The Washington Post, an especially influential voice in Montgomery County.
Delaney also received an early endorsement from former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who said he backed Delaney because he was "very upset at how our Annapolis leaders basically handpicked our congressional candidate and … said, 'take him.'"
Unlike Garagiola, Delaney's fundraising and personal wealth allowed him to blanket cable television and radio with ads promoting his business credentials and attacking Garagiola. As head of a Chevy Chase-based bank called CapitalSource, Delaney had the means to cut his campaign a $359,000 check in the final days of the race, Federal Election Commission reports show.