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House challengers in Md. look to Cantor's loss for inspiration

When first-time House candidate Jonathan Goff Jr. was learning how to fill out a campaign finance report, an official at the Federal Election Commission handed him a sample filing from one of the most prominent members of Congress.

The name stamped on the front: Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and then-House majority leader.

"I was astounded," said Goff, who is running against incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Harris in Maryland's 1st Congressional District. "This was big money."

Cantor's unexpected loss to a conservative economist in Virginia's June 10 primary — despite raising more than $5 million — has given a measure of hope to little-known congressional candidates in Maryland, even though independent political observers see little chance of a similar upset Tuesday.

Though Maryland's political apparatus has focused on statewide primaries for governor and attorney general, six of eight incumbents in the House of Representatives face primary opponents. Besides Harris, five Democratic lawmakers face challenges: Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes of Baltimore County, Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County, Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.

In all, 35 congressional candidates are on the ballot.

For Goff, a Fallston resident, seeing political novice David Brat topple a moneyed incumbent like Cantor is motivating.

Moreover, it's not only Republicans who have drawn inspiration from the Virginia race.

"The situation here is very reflective of the situation there in Virginia's 7th District," said Warren Christopher, an Army veteran who is challenging Edwards in the 4th District primary. "Instead of creating jobs, we're losing jobs."

Still, the odds are long for challengers in Maryland and nationwide. Despite talk of anti-incumbent sentiment, fewer than 3 percent of House lawmakers lost primaries in the 2012 election cycle — and that includes member-on-member primaries that resulted from redistricting. In 2010, fewer than 1 percent of House incumbents lost primaries.

The candidates in Maryland are not as well positioned as Brat was. Though he could not match Cantor's fund-raising, Brat managed to raise more than $200,000 for his campaign and had about $84,000 on hand at the end of May. He also won endorsements from conservative celebrities such as radio host Laura Ingraham.

By contrast, all of Maryland's nonincumbent candidates combined have a little over $150,000 in the bank. And about 85 percent of that is held by two men, Democrat John LaFerla of the 1st District and Republican Daniel Bongino in the 6th District.

The political landscape in Virginia is also vastly different from that of Maryland, where Democrats control seven of eight seats. Democrats, for now at least, are less fractured than Republicans.

"Party really does matter, because Republicans have moved to the right much more than Democrats have moved to the left," said David Lublin, an American University government professor who writes a blog on Maryland politics.

That's not to say Maryland incumbents always beat back primary challengers.

In 2008, Edwards crushed eight-term incumbent Al Wynn with 59 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, and went on to Congress after winning a special election.

That same year, Harris beat nine-term incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest in the Republican primary. Harris lost in the general election but came back to win in 2010.

Harris, cognizant of his election history and the broader currents in congressional politics, has left little room for anyone to challenge him from the right. He has been a solid conservative vote and, this past week, announced he is running to lead one of the best-known conservative caucuses in the House.

"Republican voters in the 1st District and Congressman Harris share conservative principles of limited government, the rule of law, and personal responsibility," Harris spokesman Chris Meekins said in a statement.

The 1st District includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties.

Edwards, who couldn't be reached for comment, represents portions of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Observers say other factors are limiting the likelihood of an upset in this week's congressional primaries. Expected low voter turnout, a lack of experienced challengers and relatively new districts redrawn by Democrats in Annapolis in 2011 are partly driving that phenomena, said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland.

"The reason Republicans aren't really fielding credible candidates in most districts is because the districts have been drawn in a manner that basically makes it sure that a Republican can never win," he said.

The candidate who has made the most of Cantor's loss is Bongino, the former Secret Service agent seeking the Republican nomination in the 6th District. Shortly after Brat won the primary, Bongino tweeted: "You've been warned #EstablishmentGOP" and "Do not fear establishment insiders, they feed on it. Organize and take it back."

The next day his campaign issued a statement saying his supporters "are even more energized knowing that a race so close to home" resulted in the loss of an incumbent.

When asked how his own campaign related to Brat's, Bongino said, "We've been ignored by everyone to the point of utter absurdity. The people fired up about Cantor were a very small number of people who just assumed he was going to win."

Bongino's comments are aimed at his general election opponent, Rep. John Delaney. In the GOP primary, however, Bongino, a tireless campaigner and Severna Park resident, is the Goliath to his Republican opponent, Harold W. Painter Jr.

For Painter, a Gaithersburg accountant, it is Bongino who is "getting to be a true politician."

Painter dismissed much of the analysis Bongino and others have offered about the meaning of Brat's win, and whether it speaks to a resurgent Tea Party.

"My own personal belief is that Cantor just lost touch with his own district," Painter said. "If you had asked Brat, he probably thought he didn't have a chance."

Voting Tuesday

Eligible primary voters will nominate candidates for governor, attorney general, Congress, the General Assembly and a long list of county and local offices.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m

Except for school board races in 15 localities, voters must be registered with the Democratic or Republican parties to participate.

Tuesday's winners will be on the ballot in November, when all state voters are eligible to vote.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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