Nearly three decades ago,Dr. Mark Plaster, then the director of the emergency room at a Delaware hospital, had to break the bad news to Joe Biden: The senator's life was in danger.
Biden, complaining of neck and head pain during the 1988 presidential campaign, had an aneurysm that was bleeding in his brain. Biden wanted to go to what was then the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment. Plaster was worried he wouldn't make it.
"I went in to talk to him and said, 'You need to go to neurosurgery now,'" Plaster said. "'If you blow that, you will die in front of me.'"
The vice president's recovery and subsequent political career are well known. Now, the doctor who had a hand in saving Biden's life is hoping to make a name for himself in politics, running against the policies embraced by Democrats — including his former patient.
Plaster, 64, is one of handful of Republican candidates running for Congress in Maryland. It's a challenge, given the state's Democratic leanings — and the political map drawn by Democrats in Annapolis to favor the party's candidates.
But this year a crop of compelling candidates is nevertheless giving it a try. Gov. Larry Hogan's unexpected win in 2014 is already having an impact on state politics: It's making it easier for Republicans to recruit accomplished people for office.
Plaster, who is challenging Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes in the state's 3rd Congressional District, is an emergency room physician, head of a publishing company and a Naval reservist who deployed twice to Iraq.In the state's 6th Congressional District, Amie Hoeber, a former deputy undersecretary of the Army and national security consultant, is running a spirited race against Rep. John Delaney, who won reelection only narrowly in 2014.
Both are wealthy, and have been able to augment fundraising with their own money, minimizing the financial disadvantage Republicans typically face in the state.
In the 2nd Congressional District, state Del. Patrick McDonough is well known in Annapolis, but he has received national attention for tying his campaign so direclty to the top of the GOPticket. McDonough, running against Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has embraced the moniker applied to him by a Baltimore Sun editorial last year: The "[Donald] Trump of Baltimore County."
"Gov. Hogan's victory in 2014 did change the atmosphere," said Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Diana Waterman. "It gave potential candidates the hope that they can win in Maryland."
To be sure, theGOP candidates for Congress — except incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Harris — are long shots.
Sarbanes won reelection in 2014 with 60 percent of the vote, roughly the same share of voters Barack Obama captured in the district during his 2012 reelection. Democrats enjoy a better than 2-to-1 registration advantage. Sarbanes, son of former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, has more than five times as much cash on hand as Plaster.
But Plaster hopes to make inroads by noting the delays veterans endure for medical care, slow economic growth and the nation's Byzantine federal tax code.
He has criticized Sarbanes for opposing legislation approved by the GOP-led House on Sept. 14 to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire underperforming employees. Democrats supported some provisions of the bill, but raised questions about the constitutionality of others. It passed 310-116, with 69 Democrats joining all Republicans in support.
"John is playing games with this. He votes for things that are window dressing — they're not real solutions," Plaster said in an interview. "Typical politician: Not solving the problem."
Sarbanes said that the legislation amounts to an "ideological attack" on federal employees by encouraging the department to fire workers "without cause or due process." The 3rd District, which meanders from Baltimore County to Montgomery County, is home to many federal employees.
"From day one, I've maintained a strong presence in all of the communities that I represent and I've worked tirelessly on behalf of Marylanders in the Third District," Sarbanes said in a statement.
He also noted his standing as a national spokesman in favor of overhauling campaign finance laws.
"I've been listening to people across Maryland and around the country who are fed up with the amount of money in our politics and who feel like Congress isn't listening to them," he said.
Plaster maintains an address and is registered to vote in the district, but acknowledges spending most of his time at a home in the Anne Arundel County community ofHarwood, located in the neighboring 5th Congressional District. He lists the Harwood home as his principal residence for property tax purposes.
Asked if that is a potential political liability, Plaster said: "It's such a gerrymandered district, nobody even knows if they're in or out of the district."
Plaster was working at Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington when Biden came to the emergency room in 1988. Plaster did not perform the surgeries that ultimately saved Biden's life, but he did help coordinate the initial care.
Biden wrote extensively about the health scare in his 2007 book "Promises to Keep."
In Western Maryland, the race between two-term incumbent Delaney and Hoeber has grown increasingly testy. A super PAC supporting Hoeber — and funded by her husband — is running a broadcast television ad criticizing Delaney for investments made by the bank he oversaw before his election. Delaney responded with an ad describing Hoeber as an "an extreme tea party partisan."
Delaney won reelection in 2014 by less than 3,000 votes. Both Delaney and Hoeber live just outside the district, which includes portions of Montgomery and Frederick counties, as well as the Maryland panhandle.
Though Delaneyhas denied having designs on higher office, many believe he is eyeing a run for governor in 2018. If true, Delaney would benefit from a strong showing in the Nov. 8 election.
Conversely, another tight race could hamper ambitions for statewide office.
Hoeber said her military background motivated her to run.
"I was triggered by my realization that things were just getting worse every day in the national security business," Hoeber said as she campaigned at a rainy Oktoberfest in Frederick on Saturday. "I think we've lost a lot of respect around the world."
Delaney spokesman Will McDonald said the incumbent isn't taking the contest for granted. He also held multiple campaign events throughout the district over the weekend.
"John believes that there's only one way to run, and that's to fight for every vote, on every block, in every zip code," McDonald said.
Though Trump has trailed Clinton significantly in two statewide polls, Plaster and Hoeber have both embraced the GOP presidential nominee. Still, neither have been as enthusiastic as McDonough.
The state lawmaker has criticized Ruppersberger on immigration, national security, the Iran nuclear agreement and other issues. He predicts Trump will perform well in the 2nd Congressional District, and help carry him to victory, too.
Trump had lunch in a popular diner in the district earlier this month after speaking to a group in Baltimore.
"Trump's strength in my district is stronger than what people believe it to be," McDonoughsaid.
"I'm a surfer on two surfboards. The Hogan wave never went away."
If he is right, then Ruppersberger, who won reelection in 2014 with more than 61 percent of the vote, is reading his district wrong. His campaign has emailed fundraising solicitations criticizing McDonough's emulations of Trump.
"Nobody likes a copycat," one email read. "And being just like Donald Trump is nothing to brag about."
A Ruppersberger campaign spokeswoman, Jaime Lennon, said her boss is running a campaign based on a record of constituent service and "common sense" legislation.
"He thinks it's about your record," Lennon said, "and not the negative rhetoric that seems to occur at election time."