Eric Wargotz, a Queen Anne's County commissioner and physician, says he's the candidate to beat among Republicans after a Rasmussen Poll showed a 25 percentage-point gap between Wargotz and Mikulski in July shrank to 16 points among likely Maryland voters in August.
"That's significant," Wargotz said of the poll, which shows Mikulski with a 55-39 percent lead. "A year ago we would have thought [overtaking Mikulski] a long shot."
While Wargotz lays claim to "some" tea party support, another Republican front-runner, Jim Rutledge, makes no bones about it: "I am the tea party candidate," he said last week — this, in addition to calling Wargotz a "threat to liberty" in Maryland. "Wargotz is politics the old way," Rutledge said. "I represent the people."
The anti-tax, smaller government tea party movement is a significant force in national politics, contributing to the ouster of entrenched incumbent senators in the past year and conducting high-profile rallies around the country.
Rutledge also roundly criticized the origins of Wargotz's $762,000 campaign fund — $575,000 of which came from Wargotz's own pockets, according to the Federal Election Commission. "I'm not trying to buy the election with personal wealth," he said. "I'm a Rutledge, not a Rockefeller."
According to the FEC, Rutledge has exhausted all but $12,342 of his $125,000 in campaign funds. Meanwhile, Wargotz has just over $600,000 left, according to the FEC.
"In terms of donations, we've almost doubled what my opponent has raised," Wargotz said of the roughly $187,000 he has received in contributions. "That says something about our viability."
Wargotz's "Fire Mikulski" campaign includes billboards, radio ads and a recently aired television spot depicting Mikulski as a politically entrenched "dinosaur."
"This is a political insidersaurus — Barbara Mikulski," goes the 30-second clip, showing Mikulski's face superimposed over the head of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Wargotz is also shown wearing a safari get-up and brandishing binoculars outside the Capitol. "His mission?" the ad concludes, "To make political insidersauruses extinct."
Even Rutledge questioned the ad. "We will clearly remain a minority [party] if Eric Wargotz wins," he said, adding: "Do you know what Mikulski will do to a guy wearing a safari hat?"
In response, Wargotz said he wasn't interested in playing tit-for-tat. "We don't feel it honorable to attack other candidates in the primary. Our goal is to remove Senator Mikulski."
Both Wargotz and Rutledge say they support tighter enforcement of immigration laws, Second Amendment rights, limited government and tax relief.
But whatever the political impact, one thing remains clear: all 24 candidates — including seven Democrats and a smattering of Green, Constitution and Libertarian party hopefuls — face long odds against Mikulski, who has spent more than $2.1 million of her $4.7 million war chest on the campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org.
"I think she's pretty solid," political scientist Thomas Schaller said last week. "Unless some scandal hits."
Mikulski's campaign manager, Simone Ward, said the senator takes nothing for granted. "Senator Mikulski looks forward to standing up for Maryland values. She's a fighter, a reformer," Ward said. "Those values should never go extinct."
The 74-year-old Mikulski, whose tenure as a Maryland senator stretches back to 1986, is looking to make 2010 her fifth consecutive term as a senator.
Despite having never chaired a full standing committee during her 24 years in the Senate, Mikulski holds a tight grip over Maryland voters: She won 71 percent of the vote in 1998 and 65 percent in 2004.
As for the Democratic primaries, Mikulski is all but certain to secure a victory over her seven challengers: Billy Bob Jaworski, James Lynch Jr., Theresa Scaldaferri, Sanquetta Taylor, Lih Young, Christopher Garner and Blaine Taylor.
Last week, Taylor said he wants to cancel out Mikulski's pro-war voting record. Garner, an engineer, said he's most concerned with Maryland's middle class.
"We're turning more and more into a Third World nation," Garner said last week, lamenting what he called unaddressed issues of illegal immigration and the lack of factories in Maryland. "They [Democrats] have stopped caring about their basic constituency."