On a recent evening, a congressional candidate rose and introduced himself at a $95-a-plate, chicken and crab cakes Democratic fundraiser in Carroll County.
Acknowledging he hadn’t met many of the 125 guests, the candidate assured them that “my values are your values,” before closing with a plea for “support and help.”
It might have been the appeal of any political novice eager to make a positive, election-year first impression.
Except this “rookie” was Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, 76, a Baltimore County resident first elected to the 2nd Congressional District two decades ago. Owing to redistricting, Ruppersberger finds himself for the first time seeking votes in much of Carroll County, which is more Republican, more rural and more connected to Western Maryland than any territory he has served before.
“It’s unusual to be introducing myself to a new constituency after more than 20 years of representing the same district in Congress,” Ruppersberger, a former Baltimore County executive, told the crowd at the May 19 dinner in Westminster.
Ruppersberger is not the only Maryland lawmaker who must reorient himself in advance of the July 19 primary. Under redistricting, in which boundary lines are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population shifts, each of Maryland’s eight U.S. House incumbents faces — to varying degrees — the challenge of forging connections with new voters in sometimes unfamiliar places.
The new 6th Congressional District of Democratic Rep. David Trone subtracts a portion of Democrat-dominated Montgomery County — his base — while adding voters in Frederick County, where voter registration is more evenly split between the major parties. If he wins reelection, Trone would represent all of Frederick County for the first time. Similarly, Rep. John Sarbanes’ 3rd Congressional District, which touches three counties, was redrawn by the General Assembly to include all of Howard County instead of just a piece.
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Ruppersberger’s district illustrates the extent to which redistricting can scramble the worlds of lawmakers — and create strange bedfellows.
Carroll is among Maryland’s most Republican counties. Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, got 60% of the vote there in 2020, compared to 32% statewide.
Ruppersberger seldom sided with Trump during his presidency, and voted twice to impeach him. That raises concerns in an area in which Trump — whose photo is prominent on the Carroll County Republican Central Committee website — still appears popular.
“My first words were — pardon me — how in the hell does Dutch handle this? He’s running in a whole different district,” said Corynne Courpas, treasurer of Carroll County’s Democratic Central Committee. “Fortunately he’s a seasoned, well-known politician. I can only imagine if he was a first-term congressman.”
The new congressional district lines, signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in April, are in effect for the July primary and Nov. 8 general election in terms of who’s on voters’ ballots. Candidates who win in November represent the new district when a new Congress convenes in January.
What may become Ruppersberger’s new district also includes a chunk of Baltimore County and a sliver of heavily Democratic Baltimore City.
Carroll County accounts for about 20% of voters in the reconfigured district, which still contains enough Democratic voters elsewhere to be classified as “safely Democratic” by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and other election forecasters.
“I’m already starting to go to events in the new area,” Ruppersberger said in an interview. “I’m going to do whatever I can to introduce myself. I’m kind of aggressive when it comes to campaigning.”
But the district will have a different feel. It no longer includes Dundalk, where Ruppersberger had long aided residents with such things as slow mail delivery and getting a passport, and where he marched annually in the July 4th parade.
Nor does it include Fort Meade, with which Ruppersberger had worked closely as a member the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
“He’s got a whole new group of people he’s bound to serve,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “His district was heavily suburban, I think, before. Now it’s suburban with a big chunk of rural. Agriculture is going to be more important now. There is a small-town type of politics that you might see in a Westminster versus a Cockeysville, which is big strip malls, big development.”
Carroll County Republicans are hoping their addition into the district — plus the relatively low popularity of Democratic president Joe Biden — could help the GOP seriously challenge Ruppersberger, a former prosecutor, member of Baltimore County Council and two-term county executive.
“I do not believe that Dutch possesses the same values as most Carroll Countians,” said Christopher Tomlinson, a member of the county’s Republican Central Committee who is running for state delegate. “The residents of Carroll County are overwhelmingly God-fearing conservatives who believe in small government, less taxes and the right-to-life.”
Asked about ideology, Ruppersberger replied: “I’m a moderate Democrat. I might not agree with everybody. I’m going to do what I believe is right for my constituents. I believe in service.”
The district’s new boundaries directly affected the decision of one Republican, small business owner Nicolee Ambrose, to try to unseat Ruppersberger.
Ambrose, who represents Maryland on the Republican National Committee, lives in the city’s tony North Roland Park/Poplar Hill neighborhood, near the Baltimore County line.
Her home was previously in Sarbanes’ 3rd Congressional District.
“I did not think it was possible for me to run in that [2nd] District because I think it’s important to live in the district” that you want to represent, she said.
U.S. House members aren’t required to live in their districts, although most do.
Ambrose had her eye on challenging Ruppersberger, whom she considers vulnerable, and was pleased when the new map put her neighborhood into the 2nd District, which she says is “a truly competitive district now.”
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Ambrose actively supported Trump’s unsuccessful 2020 reelection campaign, but declined to say whether she would support him if he runs again in 2024. “No one has even announced yet,” she said of the next presidential contest.
Ambrose will face a handful of Republicans in the primary, and Ruppersberger has three Democratic challengers.
Redistricting follows the census every 10 years to ensure that congressional, state and local districts maintain relatively equal populations.
Democrats currently hold seven of the state’s congressional seats, and Republicans one.
Under the new map. Rep. Andy Harris, the sole Republican, appears to maintain an advantage in the 1st Congressional District, which includes Harford County and the Eastern Shore.
Analysts say Democrats would be favored to hold six other seats, but that the sprawling 6th Congressional District held by Trone could be close. A half-dozen Republicans have entered the primary seeking to run against him in November.
“My race just got a lot more competitive,” Trone wrote to supporters in March after it became clear how his district map was changing.