WASHINGTON — — Maryland's westernmost congressional race was too close to call more than a day after polls closed, prompting the Republican challenger to seek a count of absentee ballots Wednesday even as Democratic incumbent Rep. John Delaney declared victory.
Delaney, in his first term, led former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino by 2,166 votes, according to unofficial results. Though few predicted the race would be competitive, the contest for the state's 6th Congressional District was one of about 20 nationwide in which the outcome remained uncertain.
Delaney's campaign, arguing that Bongino did not appear to have an advantage in the 6,396 outstanding absentee ballots that would overcome the lead, declared victory Wednesday and vowed to embrace voters of both parties. Bongino said he wants all votes to be counted before he decides what to do next.
County election officials are to begin counting absentee ballots Thursday.
In an interview Wednesday evening, Delaney said he believed his race was close in part because of dissatisfaction with Democrats at the top of the state's ticket. Delaney, who some believe has his sights set on eventually running for governor, has been critical of Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in the past.
"We think Anthony Brown lost our district by about 15 points. So that created a fairly significant backdrop to work against," Delaney said. "I think this election became a referendum on Governor O'Malley, and our polling indicated he was very unpopular in the state."
Few had predicted that the race would be competitive, though there were signs in recent weeks that Delaney was building up defenses as Bongino ran an aggressive campaign.
Bongino released a short statement thanking his voters.
"The race is currently too close to call, due to the number of absentee ballots to be counted," he wrote on his Facebook page. "After 48,775 phone calls, 27,612 doors knocked, and countless hours spent face-to-face speaking to Marylanders about what keeps them up at night, I feel it is only appropriate to allow every vote to be counted."
But a deeper look at the absentee ballots outstanding as of Wednesday shows the difficult path ahead for Bongino. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, 2,745 came from Democrats, 2,738 from Republicans and 913 from voters who were unaffiliated or registered to other parties.
Republicans captured control of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday for the first time in eight years and won gubernatorial races in Maryland and other blue states. But most GOP challengers in Maryland struggled to make headway in districts that were designed by Democrats to protect the incumbents.
If Delaney's lead holds, it would mean that all of the House members from Maryland — seven Democrats and one Republican — won re-election. In the Baltimore region, Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, John Sarbanes and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and Republican Andy Harris all turned back challengers.
Independent analysts had predicted that Delaney would win re-election. But there were signs late in the race that the gap had narrowed. Delaney, a former banker from Potomac, wrote himself an $800,000 check in the final days of campaigning and was airing a negative television ad that portrayed Bongino as too conservative for the district.
Bongino, of Severna Park, developed a national following with appearances on conservative media, including on Sean Hannity's radio program Tuesday. He raised $1.2 million in campaign cash and aired television ads criticizing Delaney as unfriendly to business.
Delaney unseated 20-year incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in 2012. The 20-point victory came after Democrats in Annapolis redrew the district to favor their party.
The 6th District includes Western Maryland and parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties.