A Republican has not represented Maryland in the Senate since 1987, the end of the late liberal Republican Sen. Charles Mathias’ three-term tenure.
But this time around, in the race for the same seat Mathias held until it was snagged by Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski three decades ago, some Republicans feel buoyed by the surprising victory of one of their own, Larry Hogan, in the 2014 governor’s race. “You’ve got to get a record number of crossover independents to be with you. Larry Hogan provided a great roadmap for that,” said Chrys Kefalas, a Republican who announced his candidacy for Senate this week after several months of fundraising and meeting with voters across the Free State. “I don’t think anyone else running for the Republican nomination can build a coalition for November.”
But while Kefalas is dreaming that Hogan’s path can be followed to victory, Democrats say they’re not sweating the race, rated Safe Democratic by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.
“We are confident that one of the outstanding Democrats running for Senate in Maryland will be elected next November to continue Sen. Mikulski’s incredible legacy,” said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Kefalas, the vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers who worked as a speechwriter for former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, faces Maryland Delegate Kathy Szeliga, a Republican leader in the state’s House of Delegates who launched her campaign last month, in the GOP primary.
Kefalas, one of the GOP’s few openly gay candidates, is a political newcomer. Both he and Szeliga are from the Baltimore area, and both said they could bring a breath of fresh air against either Rep. Donna Edwards or Rep. Chris Van Hollen — both of whom hail from the Washington, D.C., suburbs and have spent several years in Congress.
And both know what their chances are.
“Common sense will tell you it is tough for a Republican in Maryland,” Szeliga recently told Roll Call. “But, we’ve really been doing a better job in Maryland at communicating our message to voters that Republican ideas work, they’re good for Maryland and they’re good for America.”
Still, President Barack Obama won the state with more than 60 percent of the vote in both 2008 and 2012. And Mikulski won the seat five times by wide margins, too. With the exception of Hogan and Rep. Andy Harris, the one Republican in its congressional delegation, Democrats dominate Maryland.
While Republicans will not go as far as to concede that Hogan’s victory was an anomaly, they will say the circumstances of his success were far from normal.
Mike Leavitt, an Annapolis-based Republican consultant who helped guide Hogan’s successful campaign, said winning again “will be a very uphill battle” in a state where voters are registered Democrat, 2-1. “Especially in a presidential year.”
In Hogan’s 2014 race, the candidate was “very straightforward” and stuck to his economic message, Leavitt said. Plus, he was boosted by the “online army,” Change Maryland , that he built before his campaign, which allowed him to communicate directly to voters.
Leavitt said while Democrats might not be rushing to join the Maryland Republican Party, some of the moderates might be willing to listen to a candidate with the right economic message.
“I think that the issues people are concerned about has evolved,” he said.
“Kathy is a person who has life experience who made a payroll and knows whats it’s like to run a business,” Harris said. “I’ve met Chrys briefly once, but we’re not talking about a candidate even in he same league, really.”
Harris added, “We have to be realistic. He has no experience.”
But in a year that has propelled political outsiders to the top of the polls, Kefalas said his lack of political experience is an asset.
“We can look at the presidential race and talk about how outsiders are being successful. I think I am the true outsider in this race, and more in the mold of Larry Hogan running for the Republican nomination,” he said.
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