Sen. Ben Cardin has accumulated far more campaign money than his challengers in Tuesday’s primary. But he has needed to spend little of it so far in a race that has attracted little attention — despite the presence of 19 Democratic and Republican contenders, including an outsider who might be better known than the two-term senator.
Several of his challengers in the Democratic primary have expressed frustration that the race’s low profile has denied them the opportunity to introduce themselves and their ideas to the voters. There have been candidate forums and party dinners, but no debates. The Democratic gubernatorial primary and several city and county races have all attracted more attention.
Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, is seeking a third term in the Senate, after a 20-year career in the House. He was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966 — he was still in law school — and has served in the General Assembly or Congress continuously since then.
As the current primary race began, a key question was whether Chelsea Manning might find support among young progressives.
The transgender woman, a 30-year-old former Army intelligence analyst, gained international attention by giving hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. As Private Bradley Manning, she was court-martialed at Fort Meade in 2013, convicted of espionage, theft and disobeying orders and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence shortly before leaving office in 2017.
But Manning, who lives in North Bethesda, has largely eschewed a traditional campaign. It’s not clear, in fact, whether she’s currently campaigning at all. She said recently on Twitter— where she has 324,000 followers, to Cardin’s 239,000 — that most people don’t think voting will make a difference, “and they are right.” Her campaign has not responded to requests for comment for weeks.
“I’ll let others try to characterize what they think of her record,” said Cardin, 74. “I have not seen her. She has not been in Maryland that much.”
The candidates themselves have remarked on how little the public is engaged.
“This race has not garnered a lot of attention,” said Republican contender Christina Grigorian, a lawyer from Bethesda making her first run for elective office. “On the Republican side, nobody came in with a brand.”
Grigorian is among 11 candidates on the GOP ballot.
She and others said Maryland Republicans need a louder “voice at the table” in Washington. The party holds just one of the 10 seats in the state’s congressional delegation.
“I think it’s challenging on some levels just being a Republican in this state,” GOP contender Tony Campbell said. The Towson University political science lecturer, a former Army chaplain, said he is running partly to combat the “one size fits all” approach of federal programs.
The Democrats include Cardin, Manning, policy analyst Jerome Segal, Baltimore businessman Rikki Vaughn, economist Lih Young and research scientist Erik Jetmir.
Segal, 74, an author and self-described peace activist from Montgomery County, reported $1.1 million in cash on hand on June 6, most of it loaned to himself. He has purchased newspaper and television ads.
Cardin reported $2.8 million on hand on June 6, the most recent campaign finance filing.
Segal said Cardin “is not a transformational figure.” He criticized the senator for voting against the 2015 Obama administration deal to lift economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
Segal and Vaughn have discussed the lack of debates.
“We talked about this idea of trying to smoke Cardin out,” Segal said. “My theory is with the press squeezing us out, Cardin is a total shoo-in. If you see a bunch of people running that you’ve never heard of, you’re not going to vote for them.”
While it’s unusual for rival candidates to band together, Vaughn said he was concerned enough about the lack of attention to join with Segal. Vaughn, Segal and Manning co-wrote a Washington Post opinion piece this month “to call on Cardin to join with us in debating the issues facing the state and our country.”
Segal sought a debate staged by the Maryland Democratic Party. A party spokesman told The Baltimore Sun that candidates in the gubernatorial primary specifically asked the party to coordinate debates, but the Senate candidates had not made a similar request.
Cardin said the contenders themselves had skipped some campaign events. He questioned “the sincerity of this joint effort, coming at the last minute.”
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Cardin is “well above water” among Maryland Democrats.
“He has worked to raise his profile with foreign policy and his initial pushback against the Trump administration,” she said.
Cardin, who supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, said he disagrees with the administration on most issues. He said the most important election issues are about the economy.
“Voters in Maryland are concerned about their economic future,” he said. “They want help for the middle class, investments in job training, to make education much affordable, particularly higher education. On the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve been able to reverse Donald Trump’s policies.”
Cardin won election to the Senate in 2006 by 10 percentage points, and re-election in 2012 by 30.
A Goucher Poll in February found that 64 percent of Democratic likely voters held a favorable opinion of Cardin. Fifteen percent had an unfavorable opinion.
Forty-four percent said they were unable to gauge what they thought of Manning. The poll didn’t sample the other primary candidates.
The other Republicans include small business owner Chris Chaffee, teacher and mechanic Bill Krehnbrink and contractor Evan Cronhardt.
“You find out very quickly who has the stomach for campaigning across the state,” said Campbell, the Towson lecturer. “Most of the people in my primary haven’t even bothered to fill out FEC (Federal Election Commission) paperwork.” He reported raising about $15,000 as of March 31 but said “we’re at about $35,000 or $40,000” now.
Campbell was accused in a May traffic case of striking a parked car with his vehicle and leaving the scene without reporting the incident, according to Baltimore County police. He told The Sun he had the radio on and wasn’t aware he had struck another car until he received notice from authorities later on. He is scheduled to appear in court in August.
Manning’s candidacy has inspired social media threads of impassioned and often expletive-filled debate about whether she is a hero or traitor. She elicited concern from her Twitter followers over the Memorial Day weekend when she posted that “I’m not really cut out for this world.”
A second post — both have since been deleted — showed the legs and feet of a person standing on what appeared to be a window ledge.
A more recent post said Manning “is recovering and in the company of friends. we thank everyone for their well-wishes and support.”
Her campaign did not respond afterward to requests for comment from Manning or her spokeswoman. Cardin declined to comment on the tweets.
Manning might be the state’s best-known candidate whom most voters haven’t actually seen in a campaign. She showed up at a music and arts festival in March in Austin, Texas, with Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist band. A few months later, she addressed a Washington rally in support of protesters arrested at Trump’s inauguration. The famed photographer Annie Leibovitz filmed her in a swimsuit for Vogue magazine.
“She’s barely done anything to suggest she’s running,” said Todd Eberly, an associate political science professor at St. Mary’s College. “In no way do you get the sense this was a serious run.”
A campaign website outlines her support for single payer health care and warns against a growing “police state” and “our militarized borders and ports of entry.” Her campaign reported raising $81,000 with $9,700 on hand.
Manning tweeted on May 23 that “most people aren't interested in voting, or elections, or civil discourse anymore. They’ve heard it all before — they don’t think it will make a difference — and they are right.”
ON THE BALLOT
Marcia H. Morgan
Jerome “Jerry” Segal
Richard “Rikki” Vaughn
Debbie “Rica” Wilson
Evan M. Cronhardt
John R. Graziani
Christina J. Grigorian
Albert Binyahmin Howard
Gerald I. Smith Jr.
Brian Charles Vaeth