Western Maryland Race Puzzles Political Insiders

Posted February 4, 2008 at 6:37pm

At least one reason why retirement rumors crop up each cycle around Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) is that in his gerrymandered Republican district, Democrats probably would need his departure plus a miracle to pick up the seat.

But it’s also a fact that the man who worked as a farmer, university professor and research scientist before running for Congress at age 65 will be 82 by the time the November elections roll around.

Although some political observers continue to speculate that Bartlett might add to the growing list of House Republican departures, one week out from Maryland’s unusually early primary date, the eight-term Congressman is expected to cruise to victory over a slew of token Republican challengers.

Meanwhile, two Democrats — 2006 nominee Andrew Duck and former Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty — are expected to be the frontrunners in a five-way race.

Duck, an Iraq War veteran, had been considered a lock for the Democratic nomination when he announced he would seek a rematch with Bartlett last summer. He entered the race with the benefit of name recognition coming off his 2006 run and had aspirations of tripling the $210,000 he raised last cycle, courtesy of enthusiasm from the netroots and veterans’ groups. His campaign also commissioned a poll in late October of 400 likely voters in the 6th district that found Bartlett’s favorability rating to be less than 60 percent.

But Dougherty threw a wrench into Duck’s plans when she filed for the race in mid-November.

Dougherty’s underfunded and undeniably uphill bid has been an object of interest to Maryland political insiders.

Frederick’s first female mayor, Dougherty was considered a rising star in the Maryland Democratic Party when she won her election in 2001. But that star flamed out early when she lost her re-election bid four years later in a bitter Democratic primary with a former Frederick mayor.

Late in that race, some city officials thought Dougherty went too far when she alluded to her opponent being connected to an infamous Frederick prostitution ring. Dougherty also earned the ire of some local Democrats when she refused to back the party nominee, who lost the general election in a tight race to a relatively unknown Republican.

Rumors have circulated that Dougherty is now running for the 6th district seat in an attempt to reconnect with Frederick Democrats and raise her own name recognition in the region for another shot at the mayor’s office in 2009.

But Dougherty dismissed such speculation on Monday.

“If anybody did any checking, I refunded money from my mayoral account to people six weeks ago to dispel any rumor about that,” she said. “I’m focused on trying to win the nomination because I think I’m the best candidate to challenge Roscoe Bartlett.”

Dougherty pointed out that Duck was only able to secure 38 percent of the vote in his 2006 election, which was just slightly more than Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won in the Republican stronghold in the 2004 presidential race.

“I realized quickly that him only garnering 38 percent of the vote meant his message does not cross over to independent and Republican voters,” Dougherty said. She added that her ideas on issues like energy policy and her experience in office and as a small business owner in downtown Frederick will help her connect to a wider pool of voters.

Duck’s campaign manager, Walter Ludwig, said this week that Dougherty’s candidacy cut into Duck’s fundraising numbers — not because donors are giving to her campaign instead, but because her entry gave would-be donors a reason to put off writing their checks until after the party sorts out its field, Ludwig said.

Campaign finance reports filed at the end of January show Duck having raised about $74,000 through Jan. 23 with $10,500 in cash on hand. Dougherty, meanwhile, had raised just $18,000 and had less than $800 of that on hand.

As a veteran, Duck brings the advantage of a military résumé to his campaign in a district that has several major military installations, including Fort Detrick, which is a major employer in the 6th district.

“I would pick Andrew to win the primary just because the district is so large and he’s going to be better known as the last nominee,” said Bruce Poole (D), the former Maryland House Majority Leader who is a lawyer in Hagerstown.

But Poole added that his sense of the race is that the Democratic primary has been an unexpectedly quiet affair.

“Nobody has really put together much of a race so far and if there’s a fight going on it’s submarine warfare, it’s not visible to the eye,” he said. After she got into the race late, “I anticipated that Jennifer would run a very fast pitch, aggressive, high-energy campaign.”

But from what Poole has seen seen, that hasn’t happened.

“You just can’t say I’m going to run and get a couple hits in the local paper and therefore everyone is going to be talking about me. … [Dougherty] is still is a bright and very capable person, but she grossly underestimated what it takes to make the mark in a Congressional primary. And as far a Duck goes, if he gets through the primary I think he’s going to have an awful amount of work to do in terms of raising money.”

Whoever wins the primary, state Democratic Party officials hope that the nominee will be able to tap into the changing demographics of the district in the uphill battle to knock off Bartlett.

In recent years, there has been a large outgrowth into the 6th district from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore suburbs, and some of those voters are liberal-minded Democrats.

The demographic shift has not gone unnoticed by the Maryland Democratic Party.

“For the first time ever in the history of the Maryland Democratic Party we’ve got a field guy in Western Maryland,” said party spokesman David Paulson. “It’s showing up in results in voter registration, it’s showing up in results in action and activity and fundraising. … I attribute that to the energy of the Democrats in Western Maryland who have worked very hard for several years in a very tough situation and now they are feeling very optimistic.”

But Bartlett’s former campaign consultant, Jim Dornan, who works as a lobbyist in Washington, said Democrats shouldn’t get carried away.

“Until Roscoe shows a sign of weakness, and I don’t think he has, they are just not going to beat him,” Dornan said.

Still, retirement rumors persist. In fact, Ludwig said this week that he was so certain that Bartlett was going to step down this cycle that he sat in his car outside of the Maryland Board of Elections office in Annapolis the night of the state’s Dec. 3 filing deadline to see if Republicans were going to pull some sort of last-minute switcheroo.

At the time, it was rumored that Bartlett might drop his candidacy at the 11th hour to open the door for his son, Maryland state Del. Joseph Bartlett (R), to jump in the race and pick up his father’s mantle.

But Dornan dismissed the possibility that Democrats could compete even with the elder Bartlett gone.

“To tell you the truth, I think the next Republican, whenever that is, is not going to have much a problem out there either,” he said. “… Sure, Frederick is changing, but is it changing overnight? Absolutely not.”