Josh Kurtz: Free Shot

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Back in 2004, at an evening reception in Annapolis a couple of weeks before the Maryland primary, I was surprised to find myself right behind state Sen. Richard Colburn in the buffet line.

Colburn was trying to oust Congressman Wayne Gilchrest in the Republican primary that year, and I figured he’d be spending every free hour meeting voters in the 1st Congressional district. So I asked him why he was in the Loews Hotel in Annapolis instead of in Romancoke or Salisbury or Denton. Colburn looked down at the steam table of stuffed ham before him and then gave me a “you’ve got to be kidding” look.

“Free food,” he replied with succinct eloquence.

No one was surprised when Colburn went on to lose to Gilchrest by 24 points.
So here we are in another presidential election year, and seven Maryland state legislators are running for Congress. Most have about as much chance as Colburn of winding up there.

But all are chasing the dream, however far-fetched, seizing on the quadrennial opportunity in presidential years that enables members of the legislature to seek federal office without risking their seats in Annapolis.

Maryland state legislators are elected to Congress all the time. At present, half of the members of the state’s congressional delegation -- Sen. Ben Cardin (D) and Reps. Andy Harris (R ), Steny Hoyer (D), Elijah Cummings (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) -- are Annapolis alumni. Of that group, only Cummings -- in a special election that did not require him to sacrifice his seat in the House of Delegates -- was sent to Congress in a presidential year.

Far longer is the list of Maryland legislators who ran futile campaigns for Congress, particularly in years that coincided with a White House election.

It’s hard to run for Congress under any circumstance. In Maryland, it’s particularly hard for legislators to run in presidential years.

Over the last several cycles, the primaries in presidential years have taken place anywhere from February to April -- in the dead of winter or early spring, when lawmakers are buried in their work in Annapolis, and voters and the media are preoccupied by the ongoing presidential race. It’s hard for a congressional candidate who’s a state legislator to raise money, put together a campaign apparatus, and spend significant time on the campaign trail while he or she is stuck in Annapolis.

Yet many do it -- lured, no doubt, by the knowledge that even if they fail spectacularly, they still have their State House sinecures to fall back on. All are no doubt serious about wanting to serve in Congress. But that doesn’t mean that they’re all serious about doing what they need to do to get there.

This year, state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola has an even chance -- maybe even a better than even chance -- in the newly-drawn 6th congressional district, which is now highly favorable for Democrats.

Two other Annapolis lawmakers, state Sen. David Brinkley and Del. Kathy Afzali, are trying to oust veteran Congressman Roscoe Bartlett in the 6th district Republican primary. Both are appealing political commodities who would probably make fine members of Congress -- and many political insiders, both Republicans and Democrats, believe Brinkley would make a stronger candidate than Bartlett in the general election given the district’s new contours and demographics.

But both have precious little time to make their case against the entrenched incumbent, whatever his political shortcomings. And the fact that they’re both running means they’ll be splitting the anti-Bartlett vote.

In the 2nd congressional district, state Sen. Nancy Jacobs and Del. Rick Impallaria are competing in the April 3 Republican primary for the right to take on Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D). The winner will then have seven months to convince voters to fire the incumbent.

The same is true in the 5th congressional district, where state House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell (R) is taking on Hoyer. Hoyer and Ruppersberger remain strong favorites for re-election, but the legislators represent their toughest opponents in years. If things go badly for the Democrats in this legislative session, if a national Republican wave suddenly materializes in the fall, those races could get interesting.

Then there is the quixotic campaign of state Sen. Anthony Muse, who is trying to upend Cardin the Democratic Senate primary. Kweisi Mfume, a leading figure in Maryland and national politics, couldn’t beat Cardin six years ago, so there’s no reason to believe Muse can.

Assuming that most of these legislators are going to return to Annapolis rather than advance to Capitol Hill, let’s take a quick look at the last five presidential election cycles and see what current and former colleagues they’ll be joining in the losers’ circle. You may be surprised by some of the names you see as we take this little walk down Memory Lane.

In 1992, right after a round of redistricting, U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen (D) was forced to run for re-election in mostly unfamiliar territory. He wound up drawing several Democratic primary challengers, including then-Dels. Samuel Q. Johnson III and John Astle. McMillen won the primary with 55 percent of the vote to 24 for Johnson and 14 for Astle. McMillen went on to lose the general election to Gilchrest in a member vs. member contest; Astle was elected to the state Senate two years later.

That same year, in a newly-drawn congressional district designed to elect an African-American, then-state Sen. Albert Wynn narrowly won a crowded Democratic primary. Also running, as the most prominent white candidate in the race, was then-Del. Dana Dembrow, who finished third.

In 1996, a conservative first-term delegate, Barrie Ciliberti, ran against then-U.S. Rep. Connie Morella in the 8th district Republican primary. He lost by 38 points and quickly faded into obscurity. That same year, then-Del. John Morgan was the Republican nominee against Hoyer, taking 43 percent of the vote -- one of the best showings ever by a Hoyer GOP challenger.

But the big scrum involving state legislators that year was the 20-candidate Democratic primary in the spring special election to replace Mfume, when he left Congress to become president of the NAACP. Cummings, then the state House speaker pro tem, finished at the top of the heap, with 37 percent. Baltimore minister Frank Reid was his closest competition, taking 24 percent. Democratic primary also-rans included state Sen. Delores Kelley (10 percent), then-Del. Ken Montague (3 percent), then-Del. Tiger Davis (2 percent) and then-Del. Salima Siler Marriott (2 percent).

In 2000, then-Del. Bennett Bozman was the Democratic nominee against Gilchrest, but he was clobbered, taking just 35 percent of the vote. Then-Del. Tim Hutchins had the same anemic percentage that year as the Republican nominee against Hoyer.

But the prize for futility in 2000 was then-Del. Jake Mohorovic, running in the 2nd district when Republican Bob Ehrlich was the congressman there. He lost the Democratic primary to farmer Ken Bosley, a frequent candidate, by 11 points.

In 2004, in addition to Colburn’s flame-out against Gilchrest, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, just two years after winning his seat in Annapolis by ousting veteran Sen. Walter Baker (D), was the Republican nominee against popular U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D). She beat him 2-1 even though he poured millions of dollars of his own into the campaign.

Pipkin tried again four years later, joining Andy Harris in the Republican primary against Gilchrest. The tally: Harris 43 percent, Gilchrest 33 percent and Pipkin 20 percent. Harris went on to lose narrowly to Democrat Frank Kratovil in the general election that year, but beat him in a rematch in 2010. And thanks to redistricting, it looks as if he’ll be in Congress for a long time.

So yes, there is sometimes a political afterlife for congressional losers who serve in the legislature. But just as often, there is political obscurity. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?

O’Malley and the Mod Squad

Jim Rosapepe’s Boot & Roscoe Bartlett’s Poll

Walter Dozier, RIP

Redistricting, By the Numbers and in Black and White

Living in Infamy

Holiday Green and Anthony Brown

All I Want for Christmas Is Bob Ehrlich’s Book (Plus: A Meditation on Tom Perez)
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.