ANNAPOLIS – Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation are sitting on bulging election-year war chests, with five House members over $200,000 and Sen. Barbara Mikulski over the $1.2 million mark.
More importantly, perhaps, only one known challenger reported any fund-raising activity for 1997 in year-end reports just filed with the Federal Elections Commission. Democrat Ralph Neas had $172,186 on hand for an expected challenge to Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda.
Whether they are a symptom or a cause, the incumbents’ burgeoning bank accounts portend a slate of dull races this fall.
“When a candidate raises that much money in an off-year, it discourages challengers,” said Paul Hendrie, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Why should you waste the time?” as a challenger, he asked. “The January year-end report is one that a lot of people in politics look at.”
Besides their finances, other factors are giving incumbents a stronger hand than usual this year, said Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland government and politics professor.
“In 1998, with the economy doing well and people being happy, they will probably stay with the incumbents,” he said.
Mikulski, a Democrat up for re-election this year, is considered one of the safest incumbents in the delegation. Despite that — or because of it — she has raised $1.2 million for her 1998 campaign, far outdistancing other members of the delegation.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mitchellville, has made a practice of outspending his foes and led the state’s House delegation at the end of 1997 with $399,044 cash on hand. He was followed by:
* Morella, who had $340,734 in the bank;
* Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, $333,157;
* Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, $222,676;
* Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Lutherville, $206,784;
* Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, $63,242;
* Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, $61,579;
* Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, $49,367.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat whose term runs through 2000, reported $5,124 on hand.
With few strong challenges expected, political junkies have turned their attention to the 8th District Morella-Neas match-up. While acknowledging Morella’s strength, they say she’ll face stiffer competition this fall than in previous elections.
Neas reported $219,351 in outside contributions for 1997 and had $172,186 on hand at year’s end.
“Neas has raised a lot compared to Morella’s previous opponents,” said University of Maryland government and politics professor Paul Herrnson. “This may be the first time in a long time Connie Morella has a race on her hands.”
According to figures furnished by Neas’ campaign, Morella spent nearly three times as much as her opponent in 1996, 28 times as much in 1994, and four times as much in 1992.
Despite spending a third of Morella’s $559,807 in 1996, challenger Don Mooers won 39 percent of the vote — the most- formidable effort by a Morella foe in a decade.
“Let’s say (Neas) raises $800,000 to $1 million, he’ll be able to get his message out,” Herrnson said. “That hasn’t happened before.”
But Uslaner was still skeptical of Neas’s chances.
“You rarely have a good opportunity to defeat Connie Morella,” he said. “It would require a major national tide against the Republican party, and even that might not beat her.”
Republican Bob Ostrom will officially announce Monday that he is a candidate for Hoyer’s 5th District seat.
With his fund-raising efforts just beginning, Ostrom acknowledged it will be a challenge to keep pace with Hoyer, who spent $1.2 million in a 1996 race against John Morgan. Hoyer took 57 percent of the vote in that race.
“We need to have enough money so we can go toe to toe with Steny,” Ostrom said. “That doesn’t mean that we have to spend the same amount, but we need to spend enough to get our message out.”
Two incumbents — Bartlett and Wynn — have no announced challengers, perhaps reflecting their financial strength. They are third and fourth, respectively, in fund raising among Maryland’s House members.
But Uslaner noted that two of the incumbents with the least amounts of money — Gilchrest and Cummings — were in strong positions.
“If you don’t have any competition, you don’t need a lot of money,” he said.
That has not stopped Mikulski, who is considered among the safest incumbents, but also has the flushest bank account.
“Mikulski hasn’t had a tough race in a long time. She’ll probably run some kind of campaign but she probably won’t have to,” Herrnson said. “She should probably take that money and throw a big party.”