Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett has become the latest incumbent in Congress to announce he will skip his party's national convention this year to spend time campaigning for reelection, drawing a contrast with other state Republicans as well as his Democratic challenger.
The Western Maryland Republican, who is facing a difficult path to reelection in November, is the first politician in the state from either party to publicly opt out of the high-profile events. But he joins a cadre of candidates in other states — including Virginia GOP Senate candidate George Allen and Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat — who have decided to stay home.
Bartlett's decision underscores a broader challenge he and his Democratic opponent, Potomac businessman John Delaney, face as they run in what is expected to be Maryland's marquee political contest. They must keep enough distance from national party leaders to appear independent, but not stray so far that they lose institutional support that could prove crucial to their campaigns.
"Congressman Bartlett does not plan to attend the Republican National Convention at this time," campaign manager Ted Dacey said in a statement responding to questions posed by The Baltimore Sun. "He remains focused on earning the votes of his constituents in the 6th District."
Delaney's role at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., will be limited, campaign aides said, but he will offer the keynote address at a lunch organized by the Maryland party.
"The Maryland state delegation has invited John to keynote their lunch," Delaney's campaign manager, Justin Schall, said when asked about his candidate's plans. "I think that speaks for itself."
Bartlett has stayed home from his party's convention in the past, though he has never faced a re-election race of this magnitude. He was a delegate for Bob Dole in 1996 in San Diego, but he has not shown at subsequent conventions. Delaney, an active fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, was a delegate to the 2008 convention in Denver.
There is a history of congressional candidates distancing themselves from the glitz of the political conventions, despite the crush of news media and political donors that make the events advantageous for many. In 2008, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland lawmaker who at the time led the political arm of the House Democratic caucus, advised candidates to approach the conventions warily.
"Our overall advice to candidates has been to stay home," he said at the time.
Both 6th District candidates can claim some independence from their party apparatus. Despite recent attacks from Democrats that Bartlett has "gone Washington," the 20-year incumbent has broken with GOP leaders on several issues — notably, on energy — and has long been more comfortable returning to his Buckeystown farm than in engaging in the clubby social atmosphere of the capital.
Delaney, meanwhile, won his party's nomination in April without the backing of Maryland's most powerful Democratic leaders, including Gov. Martin O'Malley. Most of that support went to state Sen. Rob Garagiola.
But both men need their parties, to a point. Delaney, a first time candidate, will benefit from the deep organizational ties his party has in voter-rich Montgomery County. Bartlett, who has struggled to keep pace with Delaney in fundraising, has been aided by top GOP congressional leaders. House Speaker John Boehner has given $14,000 to his campaign this year.
Bartlett, who has never faced as significant a challenger as Delaney, will need that support to continue. Though he is spending time soliciting campaign donations — and recently posted his best fundraising quarter in years — he managed to raise about $372,000 in the past three months compared with more than $452,000 for Delaney.
Lawmakers in the Maryland Generaly Assembly redrew the district last year to add many more Democratic voters. Now, political observers such as the nonpartisan Cook Political Report list the district as a strong pickup opportunity for Democrats. The seat is one of only two held by a Republican incumbent that Cook lists as "likely Democratic" in November. The other is held by Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who will also skip the GOP convention in Tampa next month.
"The conventions are nothing more than an excuse to mingle with insiders and party with the elite," Walsh said in a statement.
Bartlett has never been a particularly strong supporter of Mitt Romney, his party's presumed nominee who trounced Rick Santorum in Maryland's primary. Bartlett remained neutral in the race but frequently espoused policies proposed by GOP candidates Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.
But lack of strong support for the nominee isn't necessarily reason for an incumbent to shun a convention. For instance, Rep. Andy Harris, the state's other Republican in Washington, was an early Gingrich supporter. An aide said Harris nonetheless will go to Tampa this year to support Romney.