Democratic candidates in districts 2, 3, and 7 face little-known Republican opponents

The anti-incumbent mood that threatens the seats of several experienced members of Congress appears poised to spare the three House Democrats representing parts of Baltimore. But all three C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and Elijah E. Cummings — still face opponents, new to politics, who are certain the political wind is at their backs.

"The entire mood of the country is to get rid of people who have been in Congress, like Mr. Sarbanes," said Jim Wilhelm, the Republican candidate for the 3rd District, now represented by Sarbanes. "The mood is that everyone is tired of these incumbents that are not listening to the people, not doing the people's will."

But political analysts expect that all three races will be won handily by the incumbents. The Baltimore-area districts, including the 3rd and 7th, are heavily Democratic and have been in the party's hands for years, when redistricting after the 2000 census swapped conservative-leaning precincts in the 2nd District for Democratic ones.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University who has taught urban politics, said he could not even recall the names of the Republican candidates, which he thinks is indicative of the party's weakness in those areas.

"When you've been shut out of office for a long time, it's very difficult to have a stable of viable potential candidates," said Crenson, who is a registered Democrat.

But that has not stopped Wilhelm and fellow challengers Marcello Cardarelli and Frank Mirabile from trying to break through, taking aim at the Democrats on health reform, government spending and unemployment. None is aligned with the tea party movement, but all agree with its basic principle of limited government.

Cardarelli, a pediatric heart surgeon from Lutherville-Timonium, said he entered the 2nd District race this spring after the passage of bank bailouts, the economic stimulus and the health insurance overhaul, moves that reminded him of economic and political conditions in his native Argentina in the 1980s.

"I'm beginning to read the same headlines here that I used to read back in Argentina 25 years ago, and it's very, very scary," Cardarelli said.

Ruppersberger, who is seeking a fifth term, said he has tried to dissipate the anger and emotional rhetoric in this year's election by getting the word out about the benefits of passed legislation.

"People are starting to realize that we had a tough situation, we did what we had to do to pull ourselves out of the recession, and we're moving forward," Ruppersberger said. "If we didn't do something to stimulate the economy, we were going to have a serious problem."

Cardarelli has loaned $95,000 and given about $25,000 to his campaign, according to reports to the Federal Election Commission. He has raised about $31,000 from other contributors, mostly physicians.

In the 3rd District, Sarbanes has sought to counteract the anti-government attitude he's encountered on the campaign trail by highlighting how their views align.

"There are some people that are steadfast in the notion that government can play no useful role," Sarbanes said. "I'm not sure that I'm ever going to convince them otherwise." But the two-term congressman said the idea that public officials have not been attuned to the will of the people is "a fair critique."

"Our responsibility is to make sure the government is doing everything to respond well and meaningfully," he said.

Wilhelm, a Marine veteran and business consultant, said he does not feel he is at any disadvantage, though Sarbanes is well-funded and well-known. Wilhelm has raised about $4,000 in small contributions from others and given $41,000 to his campaign, reports show.

The Republican candidate is not affiliated with the tea party movement, but said that the group reflects the broader desire for change. "I tend to refer to the tea party as … the silent majority that is concerned about the direction of our country," he said.

But Cummings, who has represented the 7th District since 1996, said he stands firm against anti-incumbent sentiment, even as he faces Mirabile, a landscaping business owner from Catonsville who has raised about $3,400 for his campaign, according to FEC reports.

Mirabile said he believes Baltimore's poorest residents would be better served by conservative policies. He said many residents of West Baltimore who are getting help from food stamps and welfare have told him they don't like that they have to depend on those services to get by.

"They're basically victims of the system that Democrats have put in place and controlled for decades," he said.

The Republican candidate said he would focus on lowering taxes for small-business owners to make Baltimore more business-friendly, and would like to push legislation that better addresses the factors behind high health care costs.

Cummings, however, said he believes his constituents will stand behind his decisions.

"We're doing everything in our power to create jobs against a tidal wave of Republican opposition," Cummings said, acknowledging that the conservative chorus is likely to get louder after the election.

jtorbati@baltsun.com

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