Thursday, February 14, 2008

CENTREVILLE, Md. (AP) — Even as Maryland primary voters cited “moderation” in their picks for president, two congressional districts turned out incumbents for the first time in more than 30 years, one Democrat and one Republican, both accused of being too moderate.

The losses Tuesday of Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an antiwar critic of President Bush, and Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn, whose 2003 vote authorizing the war chafed loyalists in his party, signaled anti-incumbent sentiment that surprised many state politicians. But maybe not voters.

“Psychologically, people want to see change,” said John Davis, 45, a Republican from Chestertown, in Mr. Gilchrest’s district. “The thinking is sort of, ‘Anything is better than this,’ ”

Though the two districts in Maryland appear to have little in common — one is mostly white and rural, the other suburban and mostly black — the successful challengers both exploited anti-incumbent sentiment and the sitting congressmen’s stances on the war and the economy.

Mr. Gilchrest and Mr. Wynn became the first congressional incumbents nationwide to lose this year, although only one other state, Illinois, has included congressional races with its presidential primary elections so far.

In the 1st District, state Sen. Andrew P. Harris handily beat Mr. Gilchrest after a nine-month, $1.2 million campaign in which Mr. Harris accused Mr. Gilchrest of not supporting U.S. troops because he was one of two Republicans in Congress to vote for a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq and for saying he regretted his decision to authorize the war.

Mr. Wynn, an eight-term incumbent, was ousted in the 4th District by Democrat Donna Edwards, who narrowly lost to Mr. Wynn two years ago. She spent the interim making a case to retire Mr. Wynn, among the more moderate black Democrats in Congress.

Both Mr. Harris and Mrs. Edwards cited a vague undercurrent of discontent in their victories.

“That message of change is resonating throughout the country,” said Mrs. Edwards, who along with Mr. Wynn, endorsed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president. Mr. Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain won Maryland’s presidential primary.

Mr. Harris said, “You have congressional approval in the basement. So you have people in both parties saying, ‘We’ve got to do something different.’ ”

Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland at College Park, said Mrs. Edwards was able to keep the issue of Iraq fresh in the minds of voters, while Mr. Gilchrest likely suffered from a state Republican Party that is skewing conservative. Both incumbents were punished by voters for straying too far from party dogma, he said.

“Change was on the minds of the people,” he said.

That trend was the clearest in Mrs. Edwards’ crushing victory over Mr. Wynn. In 2006, the relatively unknown lawyer came within 3 percentage points of the entrenched Mr. Wynn, who usually won re-election with ease. By yesterday afternoon, with 88 percent of precincts in the suburban Washington district reporting, Mrs. Edwards was up by about 24 percentage points.

Mr. Harris won by 10 percentage points in a crowded five-man Republican field on the Eastern Shore.

With Iraq playing a major role in both campaigns, the results showed voters still care about the war and are willing to oust officials over their approaches to U.S. involvement.

“Clearly, Iraq is a top priority,” said state Delegate Derrick L. Davis, a Democrat who lives in Mr. Wynn’s district.

Mrs. Edwards hammered Mr. Wynn on his initial support for the war in Iraq, though Mr. Wynn has since called for a troop withdrawal. “I am going to be the backbone of the Democratic Party leading us out of this war,” she said.

Also common to both races was the success of the challengers in questioning the incumbents’ credentials on the economy, given a housing slump that has hit Maryland particularly hard. Foreclosures in some parts of the state are up more than 1,000 percent from 2006, and Prince George’s County, which makes up much of the 4th District, has the highest foreclosure rate in the state.

Mrs. Edwards said Mr. Wynn’s support for bankruptcy reform has made it hard for homeowners in the district to escape foreclosure. And Mr. Harris ran ads accusing Mr. Gilchrest of supporting government spending in the face of thin wallets at home.

“You’ve got all the ‘For Sale’ signs and foreclosure notices. People are struggling. The economy is now a major issue,” said Frank Kratovil, a Democrat who won his party’s nomination to face Mr. Harris in November.

Voters who turned away from incumbents said the most important factor in both races was a broad desire for change, not just opposition to their incumbents’ positions on certain issues.

“Sometimes incumbents stay in so long people consider them part of the establishment and not representing them anymore,” said Christina Clark, 41, of Kent Island in the 1st District.

Stephen Manning contributed from Baltimore.

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