WASHINGTON – A national civil rights leader may represent the Democrat’s best chance in a decade of unseating Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella, political analysts say.
But Ralph Neas, a Republican-turned-Democrat who has voted for Morella in past elections, still faces a monumental task in trying to unseat the popular Montgomery County congresswoman.
Neas, former executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, filed as a candidate in September and is expected to make a formal announcement this month.
Morella has cruised to easy re-elections since securing the 8th Congressional District seat in 1986 despite a 3-to-2 Democratic advantage in voter registration.
Political analyst Charles Cook predicted in his influential Cook Political Report the district would “lean Republican” in 1998. That means Morella remains the favorite, but it is the lowest rating she has received from Cook since her first re- election bid in 1988.
“Morella has established herself very strongly in that district,” said Cook Political Report analyst Amy Walter, who specializes in House races. “But (Neas is) a competitive, well- known opponent who has an ability to raise money and has an ability to put a real campaign together.”
“This district has a strong-based Democratic vote,” Walter said. “It has elected Democratic presidents. It will be a fairly competitive district.”
National Democratic leaders also are buoyed by a Neas candidacy.
“Ralph Neas is a very good candidate,” said Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Connie Morella is going to have her hands full.”
But before facing Morella in the general election, Neas first must secure the Democratic nomination. Don Mooers, a Peace Corps official who lost to Morella last year, said he will announce this week whether he will run again.
University of Maryland government and politics professor Eric Uslaner said he believes Mooers would be a stronger Democratic challenger because he has more name recognition from running last year.
“Mooers got a lot of great exposure and he ran a far better race than anyone expected him to,” Uslaner said. Mooers won 39 percent of the vote, more than any Morella opponent since her first election in 1986.
Uslaner said the best way to unseat Morella, however, would be to “wait for her to retire.”
University of Maryland government and politics professor Paul Herrnson agreed that either would have an uphill fight against Morella.
Herrnson said Neas may be more well known, but Mooers has the experience of campaigning that Neas does not have.
“Neas needs to raise lots of money, get local Democrats to support him and find some way to argue that he can better represent a district with more Democrats than Republicans than Morella has and get that message across,” Herrnson said.
Walter said Morella’s past opponents have had trouble unseating her in part because of inadequate funds.
Mooers, for instance, raised less than $200,000 last year and was out-spent by the incumbent nearly 3-to-1.
Neas said he believes he can raise at least $800,000. Morella already has more than $225,000 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission records. Last year, she spent $559,807 for the 1996 election.
Uslaner said if Neas were to raise between $500,000 and $1 million his chances would still be mediocre. He said Neas would have to raise at least $2 million to be a substantial candidate.
Morella said her congressional work has kept her too busy to look ahead to next year’s race.
“I’m not even thinking of the election next year,” Morella said. “I was just sworn in in January and it’s October now.”
Neas said his campaign will focus on Morella’s record.
“My campaign will criticize her public record and I will campaign against those who control Congress,” he said. “People understand that Connie Morella is not the same Connie Morella people voted for prior to 1994.”
Morella remains one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, often voting against the party more than any of her conservative colleagues. Since the Republicans took over the majority in Congress, however, she has voted more frequently with the GOP.
Morella said she is still the most independent Republican in Congress and does not know yet how she will respond to attacks on her voting record.
“It’s a good voting record,” she said.
Mooers declined to talk about issues for a potential 1998 race.
Neas wants a public debate with Morella on the issues facing the 8th District.
“What I want to see is an exciting debate about the future of Montgomery County,” Neas said, suggesting “a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates from Barnesville to Chevy Chase.”
Morella laughed at the idea.
“That was a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t think you need Lincoln-Douglas debates. You just need to look at the issues.”
Before the general election, Morella must defeat at least one other Republican in the 1998 primary, Gilbert Peter Muirhead.
In 1996, Muirhead ran as a Democrat for Maryland’s 2nd District seat in the House, which is now held by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, R-Baltimore County. Muirhead took 3 percent of the vote in the primary, losing to Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis.