WASHINGTON – In the last week of his bid to unseat 8th District Rep. Constance Morella, Democrat Ralph Neas has started airing ads that portray the Republican incumbent as a conservative right-winger.
Morella is a “much more conservative Republican” than she used to be, say the radio and television ads, and her support for GOP leadership positions has increased 61 percent since Newt Gingrich became speaker.
“She’s not the same congresswoman we elected 12 years ago,” says a voter in one ad.
It’s a charge that Morella has heard — and brushed off — before.
Morella’s ads ignore Neas and his charges, portraying her instead as a representative of her constituents before her party. Just as they have done in the past.
“It is tough to go negative on her because she has done such a good job,” said Dave Koziatek, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. “My wife is a hard-core Democrat and she even voted for Morella.”
Neas’ challenge has been called the most competitive congressional race in Maryland, but Koziatek and others agree that Morella is difficult to unseat because of her likability. Campaign and Elections magazine “strongly favors” a Morella victory and gives her an 8-to-3 chance.
“Every two years, a new Democrat says they are going to knock off Connie, but how can you beat someone that everyone knows by their first name?” asked Blair Lee IV, a political commentator. “It is very difficult to beat her.”
That has been the challenge for Neas, who addressed the first-name familiarity by emblazoning his campaign literature with “Ralph!”
But “Ralph!” knows he will need more than getting voters to know him on a first- name basis to win. He needs money.
On that score, he has done well. Neas had raised $559,307 as of Oct. 22, according to Federal Election Commission reports, and had spent $444,113.
Morella had raised $662,795, of which she had only spent $268,423, according to the FEC.
Neas’ campaign aides said they are not worried about the funding disparity.
“We are still raising money at a fairly rapid clip,” said Phil Evans, Neas’ campaign manager. “We think we can win.”
Neas, who makes “six to eight appearances a day,” also matches Morella on the friendliness front, said aides and supporters.
After greeting voters at all 11 Montgomery County Metro stations six or seven times, “you become family,” said Neas, who was greeted by name by many of those passing by.
“This is destiny. A Democrat was elected in 1958, 1978 and now 1998. It is cyclic,” said Neas.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, 177,795 to 110,760, in the affluent and predominantly white 8th District. To win, Neas says he needs to get 20 percent of those Democrats and independents who have voted for Morella in previous elections to come to his side.
That’s not likely to happen, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research.
“Morella has show an incredible propensity to get independents and Democrats to vote for her,” said Haller.
But this is not the first uphill battle Neas has faced.
A Republican aide on Capitol Hill from 1974-80, Neas was stricken with French polio in 1979 and lay bed-ridden for 78 days. While on a respirator, he promised himself that if he got well, he would devote his life to fighting for the disabled.
In 1981, he became executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 175 organizations fighting for civil rights legislation. It was in that capacity that he pushed for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has become one of the key issues of his current campaign.
Disabled people are “qualified workers,” said Neas. “Too many people put a premium on enforcement, not education.”
Neas, who said his Republican friends used to laugh at his liberal leanings before he switched parties, would also fight in Congress for the survival of affirmative action.
“Affirmative action has worked,” he said. “People forget that the law covers all Americans, including white males.”
He said he supported President Clinton’s plan to save Social Security and to hire 100,000 new teachers. Neas said he would also fight in Congress to protect Medicare from budget cuts and described himself as a “passionate supporter of comprehensive campaign finance reform” who supports a ban on “soft money.”
But the issues do not seem to resonate with some of Morella’s constituents, who approach her as a friend rather than a congresswoman.
As she shook hands last week at the Twinbrook Metro station, most of the people who Morella spoke with already knew and liked her. One woman brushed aside a package of campaign information and rushed instead to shake Morella’s hand.
“I know a lot about her already,” said the woman.
Another man spoke to Morella for close to 10 minutes and left promising to vote for her.
“I don’t like the opponent you are running against,” said the man. “He is a jerk and you are going to win.”
His opinion on the outcome of the race is shared by most political analysts.
“Neas is the best challenger Morella has had in a while,” said Geoff Earle of Congressional Quarterly. “He can raise a lot of money and he is a sharp guy, but it is just not his year.”
Morella’s political roots run deep in Montgomery County.
A one-time teacher in the county school system, she became involved in women’s issues and, in 1971, was part of the first Montgomery County Committee for Women. She realized then that she “could have more influence if [she] was on the other side,” and won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978.
She was elected to Congress in 1986, upsetting Stewart Bainum, “a millionaire who spent $1.5 million,” according to Morella.
The seat has been relatively secure since then. Morella touts her record on federal workers and women’s issues to win re- election with between 60 and 70 percent of the vote.
Morella, who serves on the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, has successfully pushed for measures that give federal workers greater access to child care. In technology-rich Montgomery County, she touts her position as chair of the Technology Subcommittee of the Science Committee and co- chair the House Year 2000 Task Force.
Her voting record was given a score of 20 by the Christian Coalition and a score of 100 from the pro-balanced budget Concord Coalition.
Despite Neas’ claims that she has veered to the right, Morella voted this year to preserve affirmative action in higher education.
Her scores from other rating groups fall squarely in the middle of the spectrum, ranging from 30 to 77. Morella received a score of 50 from the Americans for Democratic Action and a 54 from the League of Conservative Voters.
In a commercial that began running this week, Morella focuses on her plan to give patients, rather than their health management organizations, the right to choose doctors. The ad ends by talking about Morella and her husband, Tony, who raised their three children along with her late sister’s six children.
“A mother’s commitment to children, a leader’s commitment to Maryland,” the ad says of Morella.
Maryland Republican Party Chair Joyce Terhes said the “caring, human quality she [Morella] has makes her outstanding.” And hard to beat.
“This is the first time that Morella has had a credible opponent, but she is still favored to win,” said John Kohut, the editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Morella said she does not intend to slow down any time soon.
“When I lose the drive, I will stop running but that has not happened yet,” she said.