Lopsided races: Most Maryland congressional reps face little competition

Despite well-known challengers and widespread dissatisfaction with Washington, most of Maryland's incumbents in the House of Representatives appear to be cruising to re-election — a result of convoluted congressional districts and large Democratic majorities in most parts of the state.

From the Eastern Shore, where Republican Rep. Andy Harris is running against a write-in candidate, to Baltimore, where Rep. Elijah E. Cummings enjoys a 4-1 Democratic enrollment advantage, seven of the Maryland's eight House races have received little attention.

The lackluster contests mean there's been little debate about key issues such as the nation's fiscal woes. Congress faces a tight deadline to address nearly $450 billion in expiring tax breaks and across-the-board budget cuts that will take effect at the end of the year if lawmakers fail to act. Falling off what has been called the "fiscal cliff" could have a profound impact in Maryland, where the economy is tied closely to the federal government.

Maryland's lopsided congressional races are at least partly a product of its districts — and not just the maps drawn last year by Democrats in Annapolis. For years, congressional boundaries have been crafted to favor Democrats, just as they have been configured to help whichever party is in power in other states.

"Just take one look at the district lines," Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said. "They must be accomplishing something."

A federal judge called the current map a "blatant political gerrymander," but held that it is legal. Marylanders will have a chance to weigh in on the congressional map during Tuesday's election because opponents forced the issue to referendum.

In the 1st District, Harris was a safe bet for re-election even before the map moved Republican strongholds in Carroll and Baltimore counties into his district.

Then his Democratic challenger, Wendy Rosen, withdrew from the race in September after allegations that she voted in both Maryland and Florida in 2006 and 2008. Now John LaFerla, a Chestertown physician who lost to Rosen in the Democratic primary, is running a write-in campaign.

Harris, who lives in Cockeysville, is the only Republican who benefited from the new congressional districts. But the former state senator is nevertheless among its most vocal opponents.

"Anyone who looks at the gerrymandered maps of Maryland knows that those districts are just wrong," said Harris, who was first elected to Congress in 2010.

The new districts were drawn to add a Democrat to the state's congressional delegation from the 6th District, which includes Western Maryland and a portion of Montgomery County. There, incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett is running in a competitive race against Democratic challenger John Delaney.

But outside the 6th District, the state's House races are far more ho-hum. Incumbents have managed to outraise and outmaneuver their challengers for most of the year. Overall, incumbents have an 18-to-1 advantage in campaign cash, even though two challengers are well-known members of the state legislature.

"It's very difficult for a member of the General Assembly" to run for Congress against an incumbent, said John Willis, director of the government and public policy program at the University of Baltimore. "It's not the same level — it's a quantum leap."

The inability to raise the millions needed to take on an incumbent member of Congress has been a hurdle for Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who is running in the 2nd District against Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and for House of Delegates Republican Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who is running in the 5th District against Rep. Steny Hoyer.

Jacobs is campaigning aggressively, but so is Ruppersberger — and he has about 13 times more cash on hand. The sprawling 2nd District, which runs from Havre de Grace to North Laurel, could be among the most affected by the decisions made in Washington to address the nation's fiscal problems because it is home to Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade.

On the campaign trail and in a recent debate, Ruppersberger has pushed Jacobs for details about her plan to deal with the fiscal cliff.

"We've got to start talking about specifics," Ruppersberger said in an interview. "People don't realize how serious this fiscal cliff is. … I think the new group [of Republicans] that came in has realized that there's just more to governing than cutting."

Jacobs has called for reforming the tax code and requiring Congress to balance its budget by passing an amendment to the Constitution. Asked to characterize the state of the race, Jacobs said she felt a national anti-incumbent tide will work in her favor.

"It used to be 'Throw the bums out, but keep my bum — I like my congressman,' " Jacobs said. "That's changing."

That sentiment may have played a role in Harris' win over Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil in the last election, but it hasn't been much of a factor elsewhere in the state. In that same election, Cummings beat Republican challenger Frank Mirabile Jr., with 75 percent of the vote. This year, Mirabile is back for a rematch and is convinced the new 7th District provides an opportunity to pick off voters who are enrolled as Democrats but may be willing to switch parties on Election Day.

It would require a lot of switching. The district is home to nearly 327,000 registered Democrats, compared with 78,500 Republicans and 61,500 independents.

"I'm hoping that when the election is over, it takes some of the incentive away from Republicans to have the attitude that it's 'my way or the highway,' " Cummings said when asked how the election will influence fiscal policy in Washington. "Hopefully that will free up some cooperation."

Mirabile said it is Democrats, including Cummings, who are unwilling to compromise.

"Quite honestly, this whole fiscal mess lies squarely on the Democrats and their decision to raise the debt limit," Mirabile said.

The state's meandering 3rd District, which runs from Montgomery County up to central Baltimore County, has been the focus of much of the criticism surrounding the new congressional map. A Philadelphia-based consultant ranked the district last month as the third-least compact in the nation.

Besides having a higher concentration of Democrats, the district is home to another constituency that will likely give an edge to incumbent Rep. John Sarbanes: federal employees. Like others in the delegation, Sarbanes has pushed back against attempts — mainly by Republicans — to trim the federal workforce and reduce its pay.

"I don't think you should be coming back to the federal workforce without having insisted that the highest-income people in this country contribute more to solving this fiscal situation," Sarbanes said. "It's time for others to step up."

His Republican opponent, Eric Knowles, did not respond to a request for comment.



Election guide

For information about Maryland candidates for Congress and state ballot questions, go to baltimoresun.com/electionguide2012

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