Maryland's western-most congressional district is once again emerging as the liveliest and most expensive U.S. House race in the state, pitting two dynamic political forces in an increasingly negative campaign.
Two years after Democratic Rep. John Delaney trounced a veteran incumbent in the newly redrawn 6th Congressional District, he is facing an aggressive challenge from Republican Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who has developed a national following with appearances on conservative media.
While independent analysts — and even some Republican observers — predict Bongino isn't likely to topple Delaney in the Democratic-leaning district, the margin of the race could have implications for the political futures of both men.
A big win for Delaney could make him a more plausible candidate for higher office, and a close race would raise the possibility of another Bongino campaign in the future, experts said.
"If it's competitive then there is going to be a challenge to Delaney pretty much every election cycle," predicted Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland. "If Delaney cleans up in a midterm… I think he's probably going to be home free."
Democrats are facing a difficult landscape nationally ahead of the Nov. 4 midterm election because of President Barack Obama's sagging approval ratings. Republicans have a shot at capturing control of the Senate and are aiming to add to their House majority.
Most of Maryland's eight congressional incumbents — seven Democrats and one Republican — face little opposition. With snarky television ads and $3 million raised by both campaigns, the Sixth District is by far the state's most energetic.
The district includes Western Maryland and portions of Frederick and Montgomery counties.
Bongino aired an ad last week criticizing Delaney for a comment he made suggesting Maryland shouldn't try to appease businesses by matching other states' tax rates. The Democrat responded with a spot that tries to paint Bongino as far to the right, noting his endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
A similar clash unfolded at a candidate forum in Frederick on Friday. Delaney — without naming Bongino — repeatedly said Tea Party ideology had mucked up the works of Congress.
"People are ranting and raving, and they come to Congress not wanting to get things done," Delaney told several dozen retired federal employees who organized the event. "It's really easy to say 'no' in life. What's hard to do is figure out a path to 'yes.'"
Bongino, echoing a theme widely embraced by conservatives, said he wouldn't apologize for sticking to his beliefs.
"Because it's bipartisan doesn't make it good," he said. "What do you want to do, acquiesce to bad ideas? Guilty as charged: I'm a fighter."
Unlike most congressional challengers in the state, Bongino has raised real money: $1.2 million compared with $1.8 million for Delaney this cycle. And, in reports filed late Thursday with the Federal Election Commission, Bongino had slightly more cash in the bank.
In another district, that could represent a problem for an incumbent. But Delaney can easily wipe away any fundraising advantage with a personal check and drown Bongino in a flood of ads. A former banker, Delaney spent $2.5 million of his own money on his 2012 effort.
Also working against Bongino is the district itself, which was re-drawn by Gov. Martin O'Malley and state lawmakers in 2011 to favor Democrats. An analysis of returns shows Delaney out-performed Obama in the district on Election Day two years ago, when the president won it with more than 55 percent of the vote.
Outside Republican groups that are eager to grow the party's House majority haven't invested any money in the district.
"Given the political environment, Delaney could well have a closer race on his hands than he had in 2012," said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But there aren't any signs he's in the danger zone."
The new districts also pose a challenge for Democrat Bill Tilghman, a retired corporate lawyer who is running against Republican Rep. Andy Harris in the 1st Congressional District. Mapmakers moved many Republican voters from the Sixth to the First, making Harris' seat even safer for the GOP.
Tilghman has raised about $524,000 — more than 40 percent has come from his own pocket — and is running television ads. The 70-year-old Centreville man has tried to cast Harris as too conservative for a district that was represented for 18 years by Wayne T. Gilchrest, a centrist Republican.
"You can't just act in such a way that makes everybody around you angry," Tilghman said. "It's just so unsustainable and so childish."
Harris won with more than 63 percent of the vote in the last election — when the Democrat withdrew from the race after the ballot was printed — and with 54 percent in the old district in 2010.
The Cockeysville lawmaker, who is 57, has raised $1.2 million for this reelection.
Harris said in a statement that he works "each day to cut wasteful spending and move toward a balanced budget" and that he's thankful for those who have embraced that effort.
But it's the Sixth District where the bulk of federal political activity is taking place this year.
Delaney made a splash in his first campaign for Congress two years ago. He won the nomination by defeating Rob Garagiola, a state lawmaker who had been endorsed by Annapolis Democrats, and went on to run a successful campaign against Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Republican who had represented the district for 20 years.
In Washington, he has taken a centrist approach. His signature proposal, an infrastructure funding bill, has GOP support as well as Democratic detractors. And he hasn't shied from swiping at party leaders, including O'Malley — a point he notes on the campaign trail.
Delaney, 51, briefly considered running for governor this year. Such ambition could be buoyed by a strong reelection and tarnished if it appears he is struggling to hold on to the district.
Bongino, who spent five years on the presidential protection detail for the Secret Service, also shook up his party when he came out of nowhere to run for Senate in 2012 against incumbent Democrat Ben Cardin. He captured less than 30 percent of the vote, but many Republican voters saw him as a fresh voice.
He received a blitz of national attention for an autobiography he published last year and is a regular guest — and occasional host — on programs such as Sean Hannity's syndicated radio show. Another conservative talk show host, Mark Levin, attended a fundraiser for Bongino late last month.
Bongino, 39, also was the focus of speculation about a possible gubernatorial run this year.
Neither Delaney, a Potomac resident, nor Bongino, of Severna Park, lives in the district.
A Green Party candidate, George Gluck, is also running for the seat.
Tim Magrath, executive director of the J. Glenn Beall, Jr. Institute for Public Affairs at Frostburg State University, noted that House members are usually at their most vulnerable after their first term.
"This would be the time to strike," said Magrath, who worked in Western Maryland for former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat, for more than a decade.
Still, Magrath said Delaney has been a visible presence in the district and appears to be making the right moves.
"He's gone out of us way to present himself as a moderate," Magrath said. "He's plowed the ground."