- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2012

ANNAPOLIS When Maryland leaders redrew the state’s congressional map last year to give Democrats a better shot at winning the long-conservative 6th District, observers predicted it would yield the state’s most competitive race of the 2012 election season.

Few people expected the fireworks would start this quickly.

The four leading GOP presidential hopefuls will compete Tuesday in the state’s presidential primary, and primaries also will be held for the state’s eight congressional districts and its junior U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat.

But many eyes will be on the 6th District House race, where the once-vulnerable GOP favorite is holding strong while the Democrat who once appeared poised to take the district this fall is locked in a fight for his party’s nomination.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, 85, has overcome retirement rumors and early lackluster fundraising to stand as the firm favorite in a crowded field of Republican challengers.

State Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola - a rising political star for whom the state’s most powerful Democrats were said to have redrawn the district - has gone from looking like the presumptive nominee last fall to battling John K. Delaney, a Potomac financier seeking political office for the first time.

On the Republican side, Mr. Bartlett’s main competition will come from state Sen. David R. Brinkley and Delegate Kathryn L. Afzali.

The two Democratic front-runners have traded blows in an often-negative campaign with Mr. Delaney calling attention to Mr. Garagiola’s past work as a lobbyist and painting him as beholden to political insiders.

Mr. Garagiola in turn has accused Mr. Delaney of hiding his financial dealings, supporting Republicans in the past and lacking political experience.

“He’s a blank slate. Nobody knows who he is or what his background is,” Mr. Garagiola said last week. “We’re making sure that our voters are going to vote. If they do that, we win, and I’m feeling pretty good about it right now.”

While Mr. Garagiola likes his chances Tuesday, the Delaney campaign released an internal poll last week - conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, a firm thought to be highly credible by many observers - that shows him with a 23-point lead over the state senator in the district, which covers Western Maryland and much of Montgomery County.

“I’m not a lobbyist or a career politician, I’m an entrepreneur who has real-world experience creating thousands of jobs here in Maryland,” Mr. Delaney, 48, said. “So when I talk to voters about the economy, I have greater credibility.”

Mr. Garagiola, 39, has the backing of most state Democratic leaders and received a late endorsement last week from Gov. Martin O’Malley, but support from the state’s political elite might not be helping, said Todd Eberly, the coordinator of public-policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Mr. Eberly suggested that Mr. Garagiola initially underestimated the Delaney campaign and is now struggling to regain momentum and escape the sentiment among some that he was handpicked to win the nomination.

“Within the electorate, there is this underlying anger at the system and the feeling that it’s designed to benefit people who are already part of it,” Mr. Eberly said. “I think Garagiola really got caught up in that.”

While the 6th District has plenty of intrigue, the state’s other seven House seats appear safely in hand for incumbents who likely will be heavy favorites in the November general election.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat, is expected to coast in the primary and likely will face the district’s GOP front-runner, state House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell.

Another notable GOP race will be in the 2nd District, where a field including state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Delegate Richard K. Impallaria and Army veteran Larry Smith will vie to represent the party against Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Aside from the 6th District race, the state’s most interesting campaign might be in the Senate, where political newcomers Daniel J. Bongino and Richard J. Douglas are in a tight race for the Republican nomination.

The winner likely will face the incumbent Mr. Cardin, who is hoping to hold off a Democratic primary challenge from state Sen. C. Anthony Muse.

“This is the sleeper race of the cycle. I assure you I would not have left my job if this race was unwinnable,” said Mr. Bongino, a former Secret Service agent. “People are ready for a change.”

The need for change has been a common talking point for both the GOP challengers and Mr. Muse, all of whom argue Mr. Cardin has grown insulated from the needs of Marylanders.

“People don’t want the same old, same old,” Mr. Muse said. “The fact that [incumbents] only show up at election time has been a major theme.”

Mr. Eberly said that Mr. Cardin will be very tough to beat in a primary or a general election, but that Tuesday’s results could be a good temperature gauge for Democrats’ mood in the state - particularly black Democrats.

If Mr. Muse, who is black, is able to get a substantial number of votes, Mr. Eberly said, it would indicate some discontent among black voters who might in turn prove reluctant to support Mr. Cardin in the general election or could vote against Democratic leaders on ballot initiatives this fall, including a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage.

“This will send a signal about what to look for in November,” Mr. Eberly said.

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