Two years ago, the race in Maryland's 2nd Congressional District was one of the hottest in the country, with popular two-term Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger battling Republican stalwart Helen Delich Bentley. The speaker of the House held fund-raisers for Bentley and promised her a seat on one of the most powerful committees in Congress, while the Democrats pumped millions of dollars into television ads to help propel Ruppersberger to victory.
This year, Ruppersberger is unopposed in the primary, and the three Republicans vying to challenge him are hardly household names: Jane Brooks, a twice-unsuccessful House of Delegates candidate; Michael Littleton, a machinist supervisor who hasn't been politically active for 20 years; and David Harvilicz, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer who works in Washington and only recently rented an apartment in the 2nd District.
"You'd need something almost as dramatic as an earthquake to get that race to show up on the radar screen," said Amy Walter, who handicaps House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
All three Republicans believe that if they win Tuesday's primary, they can spin some grass-roots magic before November's general election and hand Ruppersberger his first defeat in nearly 20 years.
But political experts locally and nationally say that no matter the challengers' passion, their odds of victory are slim. The experts say this is not because of anything Ruppersberger did in his first term, but because his district, like the vast majority of those nationwide, is drawn so that one party is almost guaranteed victory.
The district does have GOP-friendly territory in Harford County and on the east side of Baltimore County, where many Democrats can be persuaded to vote Republican. But after the 2000 census, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening added rock-solid Democratic precincts in Randallstown, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County while removing conservative ones in northern Baltimore County.
The last race was competitive because Bentley, a well-known former congresswoman, was running, said Michael S. Kosmas, her manager in that campaign. The only other Republican who would have a chance in the district, he added, is Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"And I don't think he's running," Kosmas said.
Maryland is hardly the only state where lawmakers used redistricting to partisan advantage, said J. Gerald Hebert, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown. In Pennsylvania, Republicans forced incumbent Democratic congressmen to run against each other, reducing their numbers from 10 to seven.
In Florida, a state divided in the 2000 presidential election, redistricting has made 18 of the state's 25 congressional seats safe for Republican incumbents, he said.
When states began regularly redrawing their district lines 30 years ago, lawmakers' tools were no more sophisticated than gas station road maps and colored pencils, said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But in 2000, lawmakers across the country used decades of experience and new computer-mapping technology to manipulate the lines with unprecedented precision, Storey said.
The three Republicans running in Maryland's 2nd District said that although the district is more than 2-to-1 Democratic, their prospects are not as bleak as they might seem. They say many voters in the district are conservative Democrats who have shown a willingness to vote for Republicans such as Ehrlich.
Brooks, 53, a lifelong resident of Dundalk, ran for the House of Delegates in 1998 and 2002. and worked as an aide to Ehrlich when he was a congressman. She has received endorsements from Bentley and other Republican officials in the state. She contends that the nation is on the wrong track morally and economically.
She said she would work to bring back manufacturing jobs so that people with high school diplomas can make a living.
Littleton, 45, of Pasadena was an active Democrat decades ago in South Baltimore but switched parties a few years ago. He said his experience as a machinist and a supervisor would help him bridge gaps between white-collar and blue-collar voters, as well as between parties.
He said he would work to stop sending manufacturing jobs overseas and that as a "regular, real, everyday type of person," he wouldn't be influenced by big-money interests.
Harvilicz worked in law firms on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley before moving to Washington a year ago to become a corporate compliance trainer. He has a six-point plan for the economy and detailed positions on education, national security and social policy. He supports school vouchers and making President Bush's tax cuts permanent.
He recently rented an apartment in Rosedale, but has not lived in the district for the past 14 years. He does not think that will be a problem with voters.
'Tough to pull off'
All three Republicans said Ruppersberger is out of touch with the district's voters, but some Republican insiders say that will be a tough case for them to make.
"Dutch is fairly popular with a lot of Republicans," said Republican consultant Carol Hirschburg. "He is not an ultra-liberal Democrat. He has Republican friends, and I guess the people that might have been more powerhouse-type candidates against him just decided not to do it."
According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Ruppersberger's campaign has $132,000 in the bank. Brooks has raised about $15,000 and had $7,000 on hand as of two weeks ago. Harvilicz has raised $4,675 (all from out-of-district donors), lent his campaign $15,000 and had $3,750 in the bank Feb. 18. Littleton has not filed any reports with the FEC.
All three Republicans said they can beat Ruppersberger by connecting with individual voters.
In a congressional race today, in a sprawling district in an expensive media market, that's just not realistic, said Jim Cauley, Ruppersberger's campaign manager in 2002.
"It's a nice little dream, Mr. Smith goes to Washington," said Cauley, who is running a Senate race in Illinois. "But it'd be tough to pull off."
Jane Brooks: Brooks, 53, of Dundalk, was unsuccessful in two bids as a House of Delegates candidate (1998 and 2002). She says she will explore ways to bring manufacturing jobs back to the area.
Michael Littleton: Littleton, 45, of Pasadena, was an active Democrat in South Baltimore nearly 20 years ago and later switched parties. He says he would work to keep companies from sending manufacturing jobs overseas.
David Harvilicz: Harvilicz, 29, recently rented an apartment in Rosedale, but has not lived in the district in 14 years. He supports school vouchers and would seek to make President Bush's tax cuts permanent.