Change-minded electorate ousts Wynn, Gilchrest

The Baltimore Sun

Democratic activist Donna Edwards defeated longtime incumbent Rep. Albert R. Wynn, and state Sen. Andy Harris upset Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, in a pair of fiercely contested races that drew national attention.

Edwards, running a populist, anti-war campaign that drew support from national liberal groups, capitalized on a surge of voter turnout in the 4th District to unseat the Prince George's congressman, whom she accused of being too moderate for his district. The race was a rematch of the 2006 primary election, when Wynn held on to his seat by a few thousand votes.

The Harris-Gilchrest race played out along similar lines, with the state senator accusing the nine-term incumbent of being too liberal for the conservative 1st District, which comprises the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

Another prominent state senator, E.J. Pipkin, was in third place, according to early returns.

No Maryland congressman had lost a party primary since 1992.

After speaking with Wynn late last night, Edwards declared victory.

"Today the voters went to the polls looking for a change, and they went out looking for new leadership that's finally going to put the public first," Edwards told supporters at the Radisson Hotel Largo. "Tonight I stand here just a little bit humbled and really proud that when voters came out looking, they found it in me."

Edwards said Wynn had promised that he would work with her to ensure a "seamless transition" for the 4th District.

Last-minute scramble

The close nature of the Republican contest in the 1st Congressional District was clear last night when, after the State Board of Elections extended voting for 90 minutes because of inclement weather, Harris left his postelection party to try to round up "a few more votes." Volunteers called voters to get them out to the polls in that window.

The congressman said his polling always showed him ahead, albeit by slim margins, in the district, which comprises the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties. Harris aides said their polling showed the same thing. Toward the end, Gilchrest said he and Harris showed slight gains as Pipkin faded.

Harris declared victory last night, even as returns were still coming in from across the district.

"They told me nine months ago that you could never possibly take on an incumbent, it could never happen, don't even try it," Harris said after thanking his family and staff. "They don't know me, they don't know my volunteers."

Not exactly conceding

Gathering supporters for what he called "the first non-concession, non-victory" speech, Gilchrest urged supporters to go home and wake up early to find out the final tally.

"We have worked for good government, good policy and we have worked for people around the world. Thank you for your honesty and integrity."

Branded a liberal in a district where that label amounts to a scarlet letter, Gilchrest was targeted in a withering series of negative television commercials and direct-mail fliers that jammed the mailboxes of district voters for months. Some voters stuck with him despite the attacks, but others were persuaded that he doesn't truly represent the district.

Nick Soffos, a 66-year-old from Joppa said that he supports Gilchrest because "He's not with the machine. He votes for what the Maryland people want."

"Just because he's a Republican doesn't mean he always votes with Republicans. He votes for whatever he sees as the people's need," Soffos said.

But for Bettie Garvey of Joppa, the message that Gilchrest wasn't a team player apparently got through, leading her to side with Harris.

"I've been disappointed with the things he's done, and how he's voting with [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi," she said. "Andy Harris has done a good job in Annapolis, and I'd like to see him go to Washington to help straighten things out there."

Ruth Lee, a Stevensville resident who voted at Kent Island High School, said she felt the district was ready for a change.

"When a person has been in office for too long, they can get a little stale, a little jaded, stuck," she said. "I think with Pipkin jumping aboard, it will give us a fresh mind. He's done a lot already. We should give him a chance."

Wynn, who for more than 15 years has represented the district that joins portions of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has said local voters need his Washington experience.

Lessons learned

Edwards, who came within a few thousand votes of beating Wynn in 2006, raised more money and took advantage of greater name recognition this time around.

Voters at the polls called it a difficult choice. At the Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro, Willie Beale said Wynn was "a good man."

"He looks out for the needs of the district," said Beale, 66, a retired buildings manager with the General Services Administration who described himself as a longtime supporter.

Dandrea James-Harris said she asked around before casting her vote for Edwards.

"From what I hear, she seems to be a person with influence, intellect and experience," said James-Harris, a 46-year-old Heart & Soul magazine editorial assistant.

Though the elections took place in politically, demographically and geographically disparate districts, they had much in common. Both turned nasty, and both could signal the mood of the nation's political parties on the eve of a pivotal election.

Edwards tried to paint Wynn as out of step with the progressive voters of the district and beholden to the oil and banking interests that have helped to bankroll his election operation.

Pipkin and Harris hammered on Gilchrest as one of two Republicans to vote with House Democrats for a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, bombarding voters with negative television and radio advertisements and direct mail.

The 1st District race appeared to mirror the national soul-searching of the Republican Party as it seeks to define itself in the post-Bush era. Harris, a stalwart Republican lawmaker in Annapolis, often said he was the best candidate to represent Ronald Reagan's "three-legged stool" of social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatism.

But Gilchrest supporters highlighted his willingness to work across party lines on environmental and foreign policy issues.

Nation's mood

The 4th District race also drew national attention from political analysts looking for signs of the mood of the electorate.

"It is possible that it is part of a larger, anti-incumbent trend," said Jennifer Palmieri of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington. "If, in fact, she prevails, it will be the combination of the Edwards and [Barack] Obama message of change that would have put her over the top.

"Barack Obama and a good challenger can be a deadly combination for incumbents."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Chris Guy, Nicole Fuller and Madison Park contributed to this article.

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