In his second quest to represent Western Maryland's 6th Congressional District, Democrat Donald M. DeArmon, 44, of Frederick is spending his summer raising money and party support to make a strong showing Nov. 7.
"You have to raise your money and shore up your base. That's been the focus of my activity this summer," said DeArmon, a career Capitol Hill staffer and father of four who ran for Congress in 1994.
Four-term incumbent Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett says he hasn't begun to focus on his re-election campaign and won't until September.
But the conservative lawmaker was front-page news in the Frederick News-Post recently, pictured hand over chest, defending the rights of all Americans to see their nation's flag flying at Thurmont Elementary School, where the world's journalists had gathered to chronicle the latest Middle East peace conference.
In a scene made to order for Bartlett's brand of down-home patriotism, the State Department had decided that no national flags - including the Stars and Stripes - should be displayed at the school, which served as the international media center during the Camp David talks.
"Give a lot of credit to Congressman Bartlett. ... Good to see Americans are still willing to defend the American flag - in person," the News-Post editorialized.
That's the kind of publicity a candidate can't buy, and it only reinforces the 73-year-old's image as a maverick who isn't afraid to do the unexpected - such as advocating a ban on sexually explicit magazines on military bases.
"I think it sells," said Maryland Del. Kevin Kelly, a Cumberland Democrat.
"Don is going to really have his work cut out for him. With the exception of Allegany County, the rest of the district is benefiting from the national prosperity. People are happy," Kelly said.
DeArmon has based his campaign so far on criticism of Bartlett, who voted against a spending bill that contained money for a highway bridge to link Interstates 270 and 70 in Frederick. The work is under way, despite his vote.
"Bartlett's record has been abysmal. He's got vote after vote where he's been out of step with the district," DeArmon said.
He criticized the incumbent for not being more helpful with the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie and for supporting the Republican health care reform plan, which would depend mainly on private insurance companies to provide care.
Joseph E. Lebherz, president of the Frederick Chamber of Commerce and a former aide to longtime conservative Democratic Rep. Beverly B. Byron, said DeArmon's strategy of criticizing Bartlett could backfire.
"He's inversely promoting him" by constantly talking about him, Lebherz said.
DeArmon says people are tiring of Bartlett. "I've had numerous Republicans who say they like my message. They think it's time for Bartlett to go," DeArmon said.
Easier said than done, observers say.
Support in primary
Bartlett won his primary election in March with 78 percent of the vote against Timothy R. Mayberry, a former state Republican Party treasurer who ran twice for state comptroller.
"If there are Republicans unhappy with me, I do not know them," Bartlett said.
And Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan says the state's Democrats designed the 6th District to hold as many of Maryland's Republicans as possible to help their own party's chances in the other seven districts.
"At this point, having gotten through the Republican primary, the chances [of Bartlett losing] are the same as a meteor landing on the pitcher's mound in Yankee Stadium - even less likely," Flanagan said.
The latest campaign-finance reports for the quarter ending June 30 show Bartlett with more than four times the campaign money DeArmon has. The Republican reported $285,260 on hand, though Bartlett is so confident he repaid himself $175,000 that he had earlier lent his campaign. If he needs more money, he'll lend it back, he said.
DeArmon reported $58,557 on hand. He received $38,352 in the past three months to Bartlett's $23,892.
Increasing the challenge, the six-county 6th Congressional District, stretching east from Garrett County to western Howard County, has about 54,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.
And GOP voters have the edge in registration in five of the six counties. Only the portion of Howard County that falls in the 6th District contains more Democrats - 2,000 more.
"You have to get Republicans to vote for you," said John Ewald, one of the four Democrats who competed in the primary.
Still, freshman Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick Democrat, said she is proof that Democrats can win in Western Maryland. "I won here. [U.S. Sen.] Barbara Mikulski all the time wins in Western Maryland. You can win here."
Take all opponents seriously
Bartlett rejects DeArmon's criticism. He said he voted against the spending bill because it took money from other things to pay for roads and bridges. "There's no way I'm going to build a bridge with money from veterans' health care," he said.
"In every appropriations bill, I could find 100 things to vote against it for and 100 that would make me vote for it. Sometimes there is something so important that you vote for it, or so evil you vote against it," Bartlett said. Veterans' health, the military and abortion are three of his hot-button issues. He'll never vote to cut the first two or to approve the third, he said.
Bartlett said he respects DeArmon as a longtime congressional staffer, someone who is "very knowledgeable" and someone he sees frequently because he works for California Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who entered Congress the same year Bartlett did, in 1992.
"You take every opponent seriously," Bartlett said.
"No one's invulnerable in American politics, but generally for a congressman who is there in the district and does the service and shows up and takes an interest, they're very difficult to defeat," said Herb Smith, political science professor at Western Maryland College.
"This is about as safe a Republican seat as there is in the state of Maryland."