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Maryland Incumbents In Peril Today

The political careers of two longtime Maryland Members of Congress are on the chopping block today as voters in the Old Line State head to the polls.

Both Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (R) in the Eastern Shore-based 1st district and Albert Wynn (D) in the suburban Washington, D.C., 4th district face well-funded challengers in races that are expected to see an especially high turnout due to today’s presidential primaries.

It’s hard to say which Member is more at risk, but an internal poll released Friday by Wynn’s challenger, lawyer and community activist Donna Edwards (D), showed her 8 points ahead. The survey of 400 likely Democratic voters, conducted in the last three days of January, had a 5-point margin of error.

“My sense is that [Edwards] is probably up,” said Wayne Clarke, a Democratic consultant and lobbyist in Prince George’s County, the heart of the 4th district. “I think she kicked [Wynn’s] butt in January; no question she had a better January than he did. The question is whether or not in the past 10 days he was able to turn it around. I think he probably stopped some of the bleeding. Whether it’s enough, I don’t know.”

What is certain is that Wynn’s fundraising efforts have caught fire in the last week of the campaign. Between Feb. 3 and Saturday, the Congressman reported receiving more than $190,000 in campaign contributions, according to late filings with the Federal Election Commission.

A significant amount of that money has come from fellow Democratic Members; the Congressional Black Caucus contributed $5,000 to Wynn’s campaign last week, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who represents an adjacent district in Maryland, cut a $2,000 check.

Both Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have been very visible in their efforts to protect Wynn, who has worked this cycle to reconnect with his liberal roots after Edwards came within 3,000 votes of defeating him in the Democratic primary last cycle. In that unexpectedly close race, Edwards attacked Wynn from the left, hitting him on his ties to business interests, for voting to authorize the Iraq War in 2002 and for supporting Republican energy policies.

“I have worked closely with Congressman Wynn for many years,” Hoyer said Monday. “He has been an effective representative of Maryland’s 4th Congressional district and a leader in Congress on a variety of issues.”

In the final days of the campaign, Edwards has been highly visible in television ads and her campaign has also been bolstered in the past week by about $80,000 in independent expenditures, mostly come from the political action committees of two of her biggest supporters, the Service Employees International Union and EMILY’s List.

“It’s too close to call and whoever has the best [get-out-the-vote] efforts … and operations on the ground at the polls … will win the race,” Clarke said.

In the 1st district GOP primary, where no public polling has been released lately, the moderate Gilchrest is facing two major challengers, state Sens. Andy Harris, who hails from the suburban Baltimore part of the district, and E.J. Pipkin, who, like Gilchrest, lives on the Eastern Shore.

Both men have assailed Gilchrest’s record and tried to paint the nine-term Congressman as too liberal for this conservative bastion in an otherwise solidly Democratic state. Gilchrest’s votes against the Bush administration’s Iraq War polices and his willingness to break with his party to take on economic powers have brought about the ire of party loyalists over the years and made him a top target of the anti-tax group the Club for Growth this cycle.

But in a state where the presidential primaries usually are a mere formality, the heavy turnout expected today could be a late blessing for Gilchrest, who spent part of Monday stumping with Arizona Sen. John McCain, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

“It’s a situation where [Gilchrest] is a maverick, McCain is a maverick and high turnout means more non-hard-core conservative voters, which tends to help maverick candidates more,” said one national pollster on Monday. “That doesn’t mean every McCain voter is going to vote for Gilchrest and every [Mike] Huckabee voter is not going to vote for Gilchrest. But I think it helps that there’s heightened interest and higher turnout tends to help candidates that are more of the maverick style.”

As recently as three months ago, the 1st district race had been a two-way battle between Harris and Gilchrest, with Harris banking on winning the anti-incumbent vote while also trying to paint himself as the one true conservative in the race.

But Pipkin jumped into the race in late November and muddied the waters, creating a second choice for anti-Gilchrest voters and playing up his Eastern Shore credentials. Pipkin, who is personally wealthy, has done little fundraising. But according to the most recent FEC reports, he has loaned his campaign close to $1 million.

Not long after Pipkin entered the fray, Gilchrest reversed course on a pledge he made after his his first re-election campaign in 1992, when he said he would no longer accept money from political action committees. Gilchrest’s campaign spokesman said at the time that Gilchrest was forced into the move because groups like the Club for Growth were tipping the financial scales too heavily against the Congressman.

But despite that move, Harris has still significantly outraised Gilchrest, having collected more than $1 million for his campaign. He is also being helped by independent expenditures on his behalf throughout the cycle. Since Feb. 1, the Club for Growth’s PAC has reported more than $270,000 in either pro-Harris or anti-Gilchrest spending. Meanwhile, environmental groups are rallying to Gilchrest, who is one of their Republican champions, with $34,000 in reported spending for mailers, ads and phone banking in the past week.

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