WASHINGTON – A Glendening administration official is poised to announce a bid to challenge Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest next fall.
Irving Pinder, assistant to the secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, will launch his campaign with five 1st Congressional District appearances Monday beginning near the Statehouse in Annapolis.
But even some Democrats are pessimistic about the chances of Pinder – or any challenger – unseating Gilchrest.
“It’s going to be hard to do,” said Kent County Democratic Party Chairman Ed Robinson. “You can’t really knock (Gilchrest) for a whole lot.”
Political analysts say even though it is more than a year before the election, it is late to begin building a strong threat to an entrenched incumbent.
“A candidacy for Congress has to begin the day after the last election,” said American University assistant government professor Steven Taylor. “(Without) a scandal, it’s too late (to defeat an incumbent).”
The fourth-term congressman has had comfortable races since squeaking out victory with 52 percent of the vote in 1992, when redistricting forced him to run against Democratic incumbent Tom McMillen.
He won in 1994 by 36 percentage points and in 1996 by a 24- point margin.
Gilchrest, who has yet to officially enter the 1998 race, said he plans to run, but is not even thinking about the election.
“We’ll get geared up somewhere around August,” said the 51- year-old former school teacher from Kennedyville. “People don’t elect me to run for re-election. They want me to do a job and that’s what I’m focusing on.”
Campaign finance records show that Gilchrest indeed has not been focusing on his re-election bid. He raised less than $1,700 in the first half of this year and had $21,040 in his campaign account, substantially less than most congressional incumbents.
The sprawling, diverse district covers nine Eastern Shore counties as well as parts of Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City. The size makes securing votes even more challenging than in other areas.
Although the congressman said he is not worrying about the next election, his chief of staff, Tony Caligiuri, said having no well-established challenger is good news, and doubts a serious threat can be mounted.
“It’s such a huge district that it takes years to put together an organization to win an election,” Caligiuri said.
Gilchrest supporters claim that the lack of early opposition is a direct indication that the congressman is doing a good job.
“It goes to what he’s doing on Capitol Hill and how visible and accessible he’s been to his constituents on the Eastern Shore,” said Maryland Republican Party Executive Director Jim Burton.
Democrats said they plan to attack Gilchrest’s voting record and dispute his claim that he is a moderate Republican.
“He’s much more conservative than he likes to say he is,” said Talbot County Democratic Party Chairman Steven Kehoe.
Caroline County Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Voss said Democrats will try to link Gilchrest with conservative and controversial House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But analyses of voting records show that Gilchrest votes against GOP leaders more often than the large majority of his Republican colleagues.
Gilchrest opposed the Republican majority 16 percent of the time last year, more often than all but 45 of the 235 House Republicans, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis of 256 votes decided along party lines.
In 635 similar votes in 1995, only 11 out of 236 Republican House members voted against the GOP majority more often than Gilchrest, who opposed his party 20 percent of the time.
Pinder, a former deputy director of the Maryland Department of Aging, said he plans to challenge Gilchrest’s stance on seniors’ issues.
“In 1995 he voted for budget bills that cut a half a trillion dollars out of Medicare and Medicaid,” he said.
Pinder, 47, of Centerville, chairman of the Eastern Shore Democratic Central Committee, served as a Queenstown town commissioner from 1988-1991.
Another possible challenger is last election’s Democratic nominee, Steven Eastaugh of Berlin, a public health professor at George Washington University.
Eastaugh will not commit to running, but said fund-raising will greatly affect his decision.
Some Eastern Shore Democrats have spoken out against Eastaugh.
“He ran … a negative campaign and that didn’t seem to go over well on the shore,” said Robinson, the Kent County Democratic party chairman.