Three months ago, everyone assumed Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett would retire.
Now, with just days to go before Tuesday's primary, the 85-year-old former scientist is poised to capture the GOP nomination in Maryland's 6th District for the 11th time. The race for the seat, which covers Western Maryland and parts of Montgomery and Frederick counties, is among the most closely watched in the country this year.
The Buckeystown Republican is running against seven other GOP candidates, including two state lawmakers — Sen. David R. Brinkley and Del. Kathy Afzali — and several businessmen. In an interview on Capitol Hill, Bartlett said his campaign's polling indicates that the crowded field is splitting the anti-incumbent vote.
"We're working hard. You always run like you're 20 points behind to keep you from being 20 points behind," Bartlett said in between votes. "But it should be OK."
Bartlett's district was a target last year for Democrats in Annapolis, who redrew its boundaries as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process to make it a more competitive seat. In the old district, only 40 percent of voters chose Barack Obama for president in 2008. In the redrawn 6th District, 57 percent voted for Obama.
Though it had been a conservative stronghold for years, the seat is one of five in the nation rated as a possible Democratic takeover by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats are eyeing the seat as part of their strategy to win control of the House, while Republicans have included it on a list of districts they will fight to defend.
Count Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, as one of many observers of the race who figured Bartlett would retire long before the general election. Bartlett's rebound in the weeks leading up to the primary, Eberly said, probably is largely a function of the one significant advantage he has in the campaign.
"Never underestimate the power that comes from incumbency," Eberly said. "He's got name recognition, and he has an established network of donors and volunteers."
In fact, Bartlett does not appear to have campaigned aggressively in the new parts of the district, such as Montgomery County. He has attended some candidate forums. His campaign has never sent a schedule of events or notice of endorsements to reporters.
His single largest campaign expense this year was to a California-based political consultant.
"He doesn't need to worry about Montgomery County until the general election comes around," Eberly speculated.
Bartlett is the only Republican candidate with an ad on television, however. The 30-second spot promotes his conservative fiscal record in Congress.
Without solid independent polling, it is difficult to measure exactly where the candidates stand. But Bartlett has raised more in campaign contributions — about $346,000 — than all of his opponents combined, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Brinkley raised $27,500, while Afzali pulled in $20,387.
As Bartlett's highest-profile challengers, Brinkley and Afzali have had to spend much of their time this year in Annapolis, where the General Assembly session has kept them, rather than on the campaign trail.
The two have engaged in open disputes at candidate forums in recent weeks rather than directing the bulk of their fire at Bartlett. Even so, Brinkley said he has received positive feedback to his broad message: that it's time for a change.
"Marylanders are very dissatisfied with incumbents and what's going in Washington," said Brinkley, 52, of New Market. "I'm very encouraged."
Afzali has tried to position herself to the right of Bartlett — she often echoes former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by referring to herself as a "barracuda." Afzali, who lives in Middletown and is the only woman in the race from either party, predicts that whoever wins the GOP nomination will have to run a grass-roots campaign in November. That, she says, is her strength.
"Nobody [else] on the Republican side has previously had to run a tough campaign," said Afzali, 54. "It's going to take something different. It's going to take someone very tenacious and very tough."
Businessman Brandon Orman Rippeon and perennial candidate Robin Ficker posted large fundraising numbers this month, though their reports reflect loans they made to their campaigns.
Joseph T. Krysztoforski has courted tea party groups but has raised less than $10,000 for his campaign.
Krysztoforski has been criticized for living in Baltimore County, which is no longer part of the 6th District. He has said he is looking for a home in the new district.
It is unclear how, or whether, the presidential primary that takes place in Maryland on the same day will affect the congressional election. Turnout is likely to be low despite the attention the presidential race has received in Maryland.
Bartlett has demurred when asked whether he will endorse a candidate for president.
"They all have characteristics that I admire," he said.
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