In the end, maybe the name was the thing.
And so John P. Sarbanes clinched a victory yesterday, winning the 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary with a comfortable 6-percentage-point margin, a crucial step in his quest to continue the Sarbanes legacy.
The son of retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes shrugged when asked if he could have won with a different last name.
"Who knows?" said Sarbanes, 44, of Towson. "We'll never know."
Sarbanes captured 32 percent of the vote, with 95 percent of the district's precincts reporting unofficial results. Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson placed second with 25 percent of the vote and state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger followed with 22 percent of the vote.
Five other Democrats received smaller percentages of votes, as the rare open congressional seat -- vacated by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is the Democratic nominee to replace the elder Sarbanes -- attracted a large crowd.
At least one candidate attributed Sarbanes' name to her loss. "I have never lost before," said Hollinger, a state lawmaker for nearly three decades. "But I never took on a United States senator before. I would say that the senator was the winner."
Most of the other Democratic candidates said they fully endorsed and supported Sarbanes and complimented him on a well-run campaign. "Certainly he had some advantages, but that's the way it goes and I don't hold that against him," said Oz Bengur, a businessman and former treasurer of the state Democratic Party. "John had a very good campaign, and he's a smart and capable guy."
Beilenson said he spoke with Sarbanes yesterday morning and gave his support. "I think he is by far the best candidate to push for changing the Bush administration's outrageous policies."
Beilenson said he was proud of his campaign and is unsure what's next for him, except that another run for public office is "highly doubtful."
"I don't think there's anything else I could have done," he said.
In a surprise on the Republican side, John White, an Annapolis businessman, appeared to beat Gary Applebaum, the former chief medical officer for Erickson Retirement Communities, who raised more money and had the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. White seized 38 percent, while Applebaum got 33 percent, according to unofficial results.
Cardin -- who represented the district for two decades -- introduced Sarbanes yesterday at a luncheon in Baltimore, where Tuesday's Democratic primary victors gathered. Only Sarbanes lacked the political pedigree of the other winners.
The attorney at Venable LLP, where he chairs the health care practice, attributed his win to an efficient campaign that paid special attention to Anne Arundel County. The sprawling district is roughly split between Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, with about 10 percent in Howard County.
"I think I won because I was able to present who I was sufficiently enough that the electorate felt comfortable that they were nominating someone who has strong credentials and experience," said Sarbanes. "And if the name brought an added dimension of comfort because they understand that that's a name that stands for strong public service, then that's great."
The younger Sarbanes said his father surfaced on the campaign trail in the past few weeks because of public curiosity.
"I kept running into people ... saying, 'Is your dad excited? Is he supporting you?' And I realized in the end, Marylanders have such respect and affection for him, that they kind of wanted to know that he was excited.
"We kept it very modest, and I think people really responded well to that," he added.
Yesterday the elder Sarbanes said he was "very excited" with his son's win. "I think people took a second look at him because of" his name, he said. "But he had to win it on his own merits, and I think he did win it on his own merits."
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based public opinion research firm, said preliminary results show Sarbanes winning in Anne Arundel and Howard counties and coming in second to Beilenson in Baltimore City and second to Hollinger in Baltimore County.
"So there was obviously slicing and dicing of the primary pie, and it required somebody to rise above the flurry of candidacies and campaign activity," said Haller. "Having that very distinguished family name was certainly the boost that John Sarbanes needed."
Stephen Hess, author of America's Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy, said most relatives of politicians begin their political careers with lower offices. "If you look at other people ... in almost every case you can say they paid their dues," said Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "The House of Representatives is a pretty high-level post."
The election result, Hess said, shows that "brand names" are important to voters. "They just assume that people who have the name Sarbanes are smart and honorable people. Maybe they're paying respect to the father, maybe they're confusing him. Or maybe he proved himself through the campaign."
Most observers believe Sarbanes is favored in November's election, as the district is heavily Democratic. But White notes that Ehrlich won the district in the 2002 gubernatorial race. "I certainly think that a Republican is winnable," said White, 36.
Sarbanes said he'd continue to campaign aggressively for November's election.
"I haven't worked this hard for 11 months to let up now," said Sarbanes. "So I'm going to keep pushing as hard as I can. I don't think you can take anything for granted."