Bartlett's career imperiled

Democratic gerrymandering spells bad news for the 10-term Western Md. congressman

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Once again, there won't be much national interest in the 2012 federal election results here in Maryland next month.

President Barack Obama, who carried the state by 25 percentage points four years ago, is a cinch to capture the state's 10 electoral votes again this November. Rookie Sen. Ben Cardin should easily win re-election, especially with the late entry of a self-funded millionaire whose presence, as polls have indicated, will probably split any anti-incumbent sentiment. Results from seven of the state's eight U.S. House seats are already a foregone conclusion.

That leaves Maryland's 6th District, the only consequential contest on the ballot.

Following the 2010 Census, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Democratic legislature gerrymandered the district in the hopes of restoring the state's House delegation from a 6-2 to a 7-1 Democratic advantage. (Democrat Frank Kratovil held the Eastern Shore-based 1st District for one term, momentarily giving the Democrats seven seats, but he then lost it in 2010 to Republican Andy Harris.) The resulting gerrymander created a new 6th District, based in Western Maryland, that now includes huge chunks of Montgomery County. The intent was to unseat Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett.

The plan appears to be working. The new district is composed of voters who supported Mr. Obama with 57 percent of their votes in 2008; an estimated half of the likely voters next month have not previously been represented by Mr. Bartlett. Whereas the 10-term Republican incumbent's lifetime 92 percent rating by the American Conservative Union was once an asset, it is now a liability for him.

And yet the scrappy, 86-year-old Mr. Bartlett has been hanging tough. For most of the summer, he polled only slightly behind Democratic nominee John Delaney, an affluent and politically connected businessman who helped raised nearly $1 million for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign and was endorsed by Bill Clinton in the Democratic primary. Mr. Bartlett has capitalized on his support among the returning, core conservatives in the western part of the district, and by depicting the wealthy Mr. Delaney as a shady outsider who is attempting to use his personal fortune to buy the seat.

Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Delaney will participate in four debates during the next two weeks; according to MarylandReporter.com, there will be more debate activity in this contest than in most of the other, less-competitive Maryland House contests. Maybe Mr. Delaney will widen his thin but persistent lead. Or perhaps Congressman Bartlett can use the debates to turn the contest in his favor and save his seat.

David Wasserman, who handicaps House races for the Cook Political Report, now rates the 6th District race "likely Democratic." Mr. Wasserman attributes Mr. Delaney's advantage to his deep pockets, the Democratic-favorable map, and the fact that Mr. Bartlett "failed to get the opponent he wanted" from the Democratic primary, presumably state Sen. Rob Garagiola of Montgomery County.

"Neither the [National Republican Campaign Committee] nor GOP outside groups have any appetite for spending precious resources for an uphill race in the D.C. market, and Bartlett's ads hitting Democratic commercial lending businessman John Delaney on his company's nursing homes and landfills have had limited reach," Mr. Wasserman wrote in his most recent update of the status of competitive House districts nationwide.

So the congressman is on his own and, quite likely, will soon be voted out of office. Mr. Bartlett's legislative record over the past 20 years is not particularly notable. But this much can be said for him: He is — or I should say, he was, in the previously configured district — a rather good fit for Western Maryland.

Every two years in this space, I lament that there just won't be a lot of electoral fireworks in the Old Line State. In both Annapolis and Washington, the Democrats remain dominant; barring a political revival by either Bob Ehrlich or Michael Steele, the state Republicans are largely dormant. In 2014, intraparty Democratic fights for the gubernatorial nomination and other top offices will provide most of the action.

So check back two years hence. Perhaps the storyline in Maryland will be more compelling. But I wouldn't count on it.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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