WASHINGTON - A wave of voter anger and frustration sweeping the nation may make for a more interesting election year in strongly Democratic Maryland, conservative activists and candidates say.
That anger -- attributed to frustration over the health care reform bill and the stumbling economy -- boiled over in dramatic fashion in Massachusetts when Republican Scott Brown upset Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election Jan. 19 to fill the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy. That result has led to speculation that more Democrats could be headed toward similar upsets in the fall.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and all eight of Maryland's representatives in the House are up for re-election this November. Every incumbent except for one, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, is a Democrat.
Most of the races look somewhat tame in the early stages of the election cycle, but one is already shaping up to be a sure bet for political drama.
Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-Stevensville, who represents Maryland's 1st District, is expected to have another dogfight on his hands after his narrow victory in 2008 for a seat held since 1990 by a Republican. This year it's a rematch against state Sen. Andy Harris, R-Baltimore County, who he beat by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2008.
In November, the Harris campaign released a poll showing he held a 13-point lead over Kratovil, 52 to 39 percent. The Kratovil campaign never answered with a poll of its own, and now that and the tight race last time has led many political observers to dub Kratovil as one of the most vulnerable Democrats facing re-election this year.
The public anger is directed toward both sides of the aisle, not just Democrats, Kratovil said, and it's largely a reaction to politicians who vote based on party affiliation rather than the substance of a particular issue.
Kratovil said he has gone against his party on issues like spending and health care reform, both areas in which he said the public's criticism has been legitimate.
"One of the big frustrations is a belief that a lot of these issues move quickly, that there isn't appropriate time to consider them. People rely on bullet points from their particular party," Kratovil said. "When I first got there, back in January of last year, I was amazed how common that was."
Harris said he sees Scott Brown's victory as a "bellwether election," and a reaction to the Democrats' attempt to push an unpopular health care bill through Congress instead of focusing on fixing the economy.
"In 2010, this is not going to be about the power of the incumbency. It's not going to be about George Bush," Harris said. "It's going to be about whether the Congress controlled by Nancy Pelosi has done what the American people have wanted in terms of turning around the economy."
The recent Supreme Court ruling that loosened restrictions on political campaign spending by corporations and labor unions is expected to have an impact on the Kratovil-Harris race, said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"It will attract a fair amount of money and it will attract some outside spending," said Herrnson. "It should be a lively race."
Herrnson said that most incumbents in Maryland's congressional delegation are fairly safe, and the state is unlikely to see a huge political swing in 2010.
"I anticipate that Democrats in Maryland will continue to control the state legislature and probably continue to control the governorship and they should learn from the lessons that were learned in Massachusetts," Herrnson said. "If you want to get elected, winning your primary isn't sufficient."
Coakley was criticized for her lackadaisical approach to the general election in Massachusetts after winning the Democratic primary in early December. Her critics have accused her of taking the longtime Democratic seat for granted and not seeing Brown as a serious threat to her candidacy until it was too late.
The road to re-election is expected to be smooth for Maryland's incumbents other than Kratovil.
In two of those districts held by Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, and Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, no challengers have filed campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission, which indicates no one has raised more than $5,000 for their campaign.
Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville; John Sarbanes, D-Baltimore; Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, have challengers who have filed with the FEC, but all enjoy huge money advantages over their opponents.
Mikulski is starting the year off in a strong position. A recent Gonzales research poll shows her earning a 64 percent approval rating, which is nearly identical to the 64.7 percent of the vote she received when she was last re-elected in 2004. According to FEC documents, she has more than $2 million banked for her campaign, which gives her a substantial head start over any rivals.
One of Mikulski's Republican challengers is Queen Anne's County Commissioner Eric Wargotz. He and his field director, Don Murphy, travelled to Massachusetts to assist the Brown campaign on Election Day. He admits he's a long shot to beat Mikulski, but he said he and other underdog challengers in Maryland were heartened a bit by the result in Massachusetts.
"It takes us from a fourth-and-long position to a third-and-long position," Wargotz said.
Wargotz said that even though Massachusetts has more independent voters than Maryland, which helped swing the election for Brown, people in both states share similar frustrations.
"The dissatisfaction with the federal government and entrenched federal officials is the same," said Wargotz. "And I think that's what Scott Brown tapped into."
Dave Schwartz, the director of the Maryland chapter of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said pulling off a similar upset in Maryland will be even more difficult than in Massachusetts.
"Massachusetts may be more liberal, but Maryland is more Democratic," said Schwartz. "I think Maryland is a tougher state to win in. But not impossible."
Schwartz said his organization now has almost 10,000 members in Maryland, nearly five times as many as it had last year.
He said Marylanders are dealing with "incredible frustration" over government spending and lingering unemployment.
"The movement is continuing to grow. I think more and more people are frustrated with government," Schwartz said. "Now we've got an election and it's going to be a very exciting one."