U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, one of the longest-serving political figures in state history, is seeking re-election as a pair of candidates try to shake up a dynamic in which challengers have historically struggled against Maryland’s Democratic senators.
Maryland, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2-1, hasn't had a non-Democratic U.S. senator since Republican Charles McC. Mathias Jr. retired in 1987.
This year's race is unusual because an independent, Neal Simon, has spent more than $1.7 million on his campaign.
Simon, 50, casts himself as a pragmatic alternative to Cardin and Republican contender Tony Campbell. He accuses both parties in Washington of spending more time "throwing red meat at their bases" than seeking solutions to problems by finding common ground.
"They're playing partisan games and getting nothing done, and it's crippling America," says the Potomac wealth management executive in a statewide television ad. It shows him at the U.S. Capitol and in front of a red-and-blue campaign bus with "People over Politics" in white letters above his name.
Cardin, 75, is seeking a third term after stints in the U.S. House and the state General Assembly. He said seeking a middle ground is not as simple as it sounds.
"Let's take Kavanaugh for a moment," said Cardin, referring to Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee whom the Senate narrowly approved this month. Cardin said Kavanaugh, who denied sexual assault allegations, lacked impartiality and could roll back abortion rights and civil liberties.
Cardin said he was “outraged” at Trump’s selection of Kavanaugh and because Senate Republicans had refused to hold a vote on Merrick Garland, a judge whom then-President Barack Obama nominated for the high court in 2016.
"If Neal Simon is suggesting we should be calm about those things, I disagree with him," Cardin said. "But we can have that discussion without yelling and screaming at each other. I don't yell and scream. Throughout my career, I've had the reputation of working across party lines."
In an Oct. 7 debate, Simon said he would have voted “no” on Kavanaugh but criticized both parties — Republicans for refusing to consider Garland’s nomination and Democrats for not coming forward sooner with the allegations professor Christine Blasey Ford brought against Kavanaugh.
Campbell, 52, a Towson University political science lecturer, said he would have voted for Kavanaugh and criticized Democrats for “using people’s pain for political gain.”
Cardin won the Democratic primary in June, emerging from a field that included the transgender activist Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who gained international attention by giving classified military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
During the ensuing campaign, Cardin has cited his efforts on behalf of cleaning the Chesapeake Bay; helping overhaul drinking water, wastewater and irrigation systems; and obtaining funding for programs to fight the opioid epidemic.
Campbell beat Washington lawyer Christina Grigorian and others in the Republican primary.
Campbell said he knew he would be at a disadvantage to Cardin in the Nov. 6 election. "I knew our free media would be few and far between and that he'd probably outspend us, like 10-1."
Campbell had raised $160,000 compared to Cardin's $3.9 million during the election cycle, according to their latest available Federal Election Commission reports. Simon reported raising $1.8 million, including a $946,600 loan to his campaign.
The state Board of Elections lists all of the candidates on its website.
Cardin was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966 and has served in the General Assembly or Congress since then.
"People I'm talking to — Republicans, Democrats and independents — think being in elected office for five decades is probably two decades too long," Campbell said.
Cardin countered that he has been successful in his long tenure because he has managed to put aside partisan differences. "Ever since I was in the state legislature, I believed I was going to fight hard on Election Day to get as many of my like-minded people elected as possible. But when the election is over, you've got to govern," he said.
Campbell also took issue with Simon. "Because you say you're independent doesn't mean you're independent. He's a liberal," Campbell said, citing Simon's position on gun control.
Simon said he once registered as a Democrat in Montgomery County so he could participate in primaries but is now an independent. On gun control, he said he favors strengthening background checks, banning bump stocks (which speed a gun’s rate of fire) and keeping firearms away from those who could be threats because of a documented mental illness.
His proposal does not include a ban on military-style assault weapons.
He said he would favor such a ban, if it came up for a vote. But he didn’t include it on a list of reforms because “I think we need to focus on where there is common ground.”
Simon has called such an approach "leadership from the middle."
Cardin disagreed with Simon's position.
"There is no reason why you need to have military-style weapons or high-capacity magazines in private possession," the senator said. Cardin also favors universal background checks for all gun purchases and a ban on bump stocks.
Campbell said there are already too many laws restricting law-abiding citizens from owning guns.
The independent Cook Political Report classifies the race as "solid" for Cardin. It is also rated as a "safe" Democratic seat by the "crystal ball" analysis of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The low-profile contest included an hour-long debate, held at WBFF-TV in Baltimore.
Campbell said he is concerned that Simon's participation means that Marylanders who are opposed to Cardin may split their votes between the alternatives.
"If people buy his (Simon's) rhetoric, we're going to have another six years of Ben Cardin," Campbell said.