Dan Bongino launched his first campaign for office on a laptop computer in his dining room. His wife, alone at his side, was the only other person he was sure would vote for him.
Two years later, as the Severna Park man runs for the House of Representatives in Maryland's 6th Congressional District, he has taken on something of a celebrity status. Now, when he knocks on voters' doors, he's often recognized from his appearances on Fox News or national talk radio programs.
Bongino faces a daunting task in attempting to unseat Rep. John Delaney, the deep-pocketed incumbent, in a district that was redrawn in 2011 to favor Democrats. But no matter how next year's midterm election turns out, even Bongino's adversaries acknowledge he has quickly built a powerful political brand in the state that has given him a voice in Republican politics.
That effort was boosted this month when Bongino published a book about his 12-year career in the U.S. Secret Service, which included a stint on the elite presidential protection detail.
The cover of the book, titled "Life Inside the Bubble," shows Bongino in dark sunglasses opening a limo door for President Barack Obama.
"If nobody knows who you are, the rest is irrelevant," said the 38-year-old Bongino, who has received a blitz of national attention since the book went on sale Nov. 19. "But you never, ever drink your own Kool-Aid. The minute you do, you lose."
The Long Island, N.Y., native popped onto Maryland's political scene two years ago to challenge Democrat Ben Cardin in the state's 2012 Senate race. Despite an aggressive schedule and fiery rhetoric that energized many Republican voters in deep-blue Maryland, he captured just 26 percent of the vote.
Cardin won with 56 percent. A wealthy unaffiliated candidate, Rob Sobhani, got 16 percent.
After speculation that Bongino might run for governor or Anne Arundel County executive, he announced in June he would seek to reclaim the 6th District for Republicans.
The Western Maryland-based district was represented for 20 years by Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a charter member of the House tea party caucus, until Democrats in Annapolis redrew it to extend further into liberal Montgomery County.
Delaney beat Bartlett by more than 20 percentage points last year.
As Bongino has marched in parades, attended fundraisers and set up volunteer operations, he also has received increasing attention from outside the state. In the past several days alone he has appeared on Fox News three times, was interviewed by the conservative Daily Caller and was a guest on the nationally syndicated Mark Levin radio show.
He has repeatedly served as a guest host on Baltimore's WCBM radio and filled in as host on Sean Hannity's syndicated radio show.
State Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley said Bongino had support in the district left over from his Senate run even before his profile began to rise nationally.
"He's already got name recognition," said Brinkley, who ran unsuccessfully against Bartlett in last year's Republican primary. "It's a tough nut to crack, but from what I've seen he is showing up at a lot of events."
Before Bongino can take on Delaney, he must first clear a primary challenge from David E. Vogt III, a retired Marine making his first run for office.
Vogt — pronounced "vote" — acknowledged he isn't as well known and hasn't yet raised much money, but he knows how to throw a political punch.
It doesn't take Vogt long to raise what is arguably Bongino's biggest political vulnerability: He lives in Severna Park, roughly 50 miles from the district.
Nothing prohibits a candidate from running in a district they don't call home — Delaney, in fact, lives two-tenths of a mile outside the district — but it makes for easy fodder for opponents.
"We have congressional districts in three other states that are closer to our district than where Mr. Bongino lives," said Vogt, who is 29 and lives in Brunswick. "I'm the little guy, but I'm the guy next door. I'm not interested in a statewide book-signing tour or getting on Fox News every possible chance I can."
Vogt describes himself as David to Bongino's Goliath, but he said he's confident he's a threat to his better-known opponent.
As evidence, Vogt said Bongino called him earlier this year and asked him to drop out. Vogt said Bongino set up a meeting to discuss that possibility but later canceled.
In an interview, Bongino declined to confirm or deny the claim.
Still, Bongino has racked up endorsements from conservative figures including former Florida Rep. Allen West and the tea party-affiliated FreedomWorks.
He is holding a fundraiser next week with Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, that campaign aides said will also draw Matt Bevin, a conservative who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky's primary.
Maryland's primary is June 24.
Bongino's book starts off as a biography, covering what he says was a humble childhood in Queens, including the story of an abusive man who moved in with his mother after his parents divorced. It details his early years as a New York City police officer and his eventual rise to the top echelons of the Secret Service.
Though the book reveals no secrets of the presidential protection division, it does offer a rare look into the culture of the agency charged with keeping the president safe.
In later chapters, Bongino casts an increasingly critical eye on a federal law enforcement bureaucracy he believes bears some responsibility in the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year and the Boston Marathon bombing in April.
A spokesman for the Secret Service said the agency did not review the book prior to publication.
"Our concern when any former employee writes a book about their experiences in the Secret Service is that it could erode the trust we have with our protectees," spokesman Ed Donovan said in a statement.
For now, no independent observer considers the 6th District to be competitive in the general election. In addition to Delaney's wide margin of victory last year, the former banker raised more than $2 million and contributed another $2.5 million himself. That's the kind of money that often scares off political challengers.
So far this year, Delaney has raised $493,000, Bongino has taken in $131,000, and Vogt has collected $17,000.
Delaney, who faces no primary opposition, declined to comment on the contest to choose his Republican opponent. In a one-sentence statement, a spokesman said the congressman "isn't paying any attention to the Republican primary."
Republicans hope anger over the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act will translate into a wave of support for their party in 2014, endangering newly elected Democrats such as Delaney.
But even if dissatisfaction with Obamacare lingers into next fall, it's not clear whether that alone would be enough to threaten Delaney, an ardent supporter of the law.
"It's like suicide to try to run that race," said Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican who also challenged Bartlett last year.
If a Republican did win, she said, representing the district as drawn by state Democrats would be a challenge.
"You wouldn't necessarily be able to vote your conscience," Afzali said. "The Republican that does win is always going to be looking over their shoulder."
But Bongino, who writes in his book that he volunteered to serve in one of the city's toughest precincts as a New York police officer, is undaunted. And he said the national attention has helped the campaign, not distracted from it.
"I'm shocked, surprised, happy — but there is a balance there," he said. "The campaign effort for us is always going to be priority No. 1."
Daniel John Bongino
Born: Smithtown, N.Y.
City of residence: Severna Park
Family: Married, two daughters
Education: City University of New York; Penn State UniversityCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun