WASHINGTON – Grace Pierpont has watched her husband run for office 14 times before. She says the reasons for a 15th bid, his current run for U.S. Senate, are the same as they were in the earlier campaigns.
“He feels that he’s qualified, he’s been in politics and can do it better than anyone else,” said Mrs. Pierpont.
But pollsters say Dr. Ross Pierpont has his work cut out for him if he’s trying to convince voters he can do it better than Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore.
The popular two-term liberal has never received less than 60 percent of the vote in her earlier races against better-funded, higher-profile challengers.
Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research said his firm is not even doing polling in this year’s Senate race because of Mikulski’s extremely high favorability ratings before the election.
“Republicans would be hard-pressed to find a competitive challenger to Mikulski,” Haller said.
But that has not dissuaded Pierpont, 81, a retired surgeon, the current chief executive officer of a health care consulting company and a perennial Republican candidate for office.
Pierpont won the Republican primary in September with 18 percent of the vote, beating out nine other candidates largely on the name recognition he built in his previous 14 campaigns, he concedes.
His media consultant said Pierpont will spend $230,000 of his own money for television ads that will run in the last week of the race, focusing on his main campaign issue, health care reform.
Pierpont said his plan is aimed at reducing the influence of what he calls the “900-pound gorillas” of U.S. health care: lawyers, insurance companies and the federal government.
But the 900-pound gorilla in the race may be the 4-foot-11- inch senator, Mikulski.
While Pierpont is running one television ad for one week, Mikulski’s aides say she has spent about $1.1 million on a series of TV ads that began running more than five weeks ago.
Federal Election Commission reports show that Pierpont had raised $66,325 from outside sources for his campaign, and still had $10,910 on hand as of Sept. 30.
Mikulski, by contrast, had raised more than $3.6 million over the six-year election cycle and still had $598,537 on hand on Sept. 30.
Haller said Mikulski, 62, has extensive appeal with labor unions and core Democratic groups, such as women, African Americans and educated liberals, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1.
Her Senate voting record has earned her perfect scores from the League of Conservation Voters, the American Public Health Association and the National Education Association. Mikulski got an approval rating of 67 from the American Civil Liberties Union and marks of 89 or above from labor unions that rate voting records.
Conversely, the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association gave Mikulski zeros for her voting record, and tax watchdog groups gave her no higher than an 18.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Mikulski has earned a reputation as an ardent supporter of the space program.
“She has always exercised her agency oversight responsibilities with great diligence and thoroughness,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the current ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.
One of only eight women in the Senate, Mikulski has also been cited as a strong voice against sexual harassment.
Polls show her with a 68 percent favorability rating, said Haller, and very low negative marks.
With Mikulski’s high popularity and with this year’s extremely tight governor’s race, press coverage of Pierpont’s challenge has been almost non-existent.
“It has gone totally unreported in the press, the result is Ms. Mikulski has gotten a free pass,” said George Liebmann, who lost to Pierpont in this year’s crowded Republican primary.
Liebmann said he “has no doubt that Dr. Pierpont could be an outstanding senator.” But because of scant media coverage of the Senate race, he said, “Voters of Maryland have no candidates, unless they are multimillionaires.”
In their only debate of the campaign, an Oct. 12 appearance on Maryland Public Television, Pierpont attacked what he called Mikulski’s liberal voting record, saying she was on the losing side of issues in 86 percent of her Senate votes.
He also attacked the never-married Mikulski on the issue of family values.
“An unmarried person has great difficulty understanding and representing family values,” said Pierpont, who has a daughter and four grandchildren.
Mikulski shot back that marital status has little to do with understanding family values.
“I think every priest and every nun would really be offended by that statement,” she said. “I don’t think your martial status determines whether you understand what American families are going through.”
Although Mikulski voted in 1996 for a welfare overhaul that limited a family to two years of benefits, Pierpont said the nation has “lost three generations by the passage of welfare by the Democrats.”
He said during the debate that the country needs “to do a very serious job about of trying to people to work,” and that has to start with the school system.
“I’m really talking about tracking in education, which tracks … where they can go, what they can do, if they’re ready to go to college,” he said. “I don’t want to see people going to college if they shouldn’t be there, because they clog up the system.”
Mikulski responded that Marylanders “need opportunity, not rhetoric.”
“This is why I’m going to try to pass federal legislation that will reduce class size, [and] deal with the crumbling schools in the U.S.,” said Mikulski, who said she would also work to offer constructive after-school activities.
Analysts say Pierpont’s conservative rhetoric is not likely to attract the swing voters who will help him unseat Mikulski.
“It would take someone well-known who happens to be a moderate to reach into Senator Mikulski’s base,” said Haller.
He believes that to knock off Mikulski, the party needs to nominate a more moderate candidate along the lines of the last Republican senator from the state, Charles “Mac” Mathias.
“Only [8th District Republican Rep.] Connie Morella would vie for that Mathias kind-of-appeal, the only person in the Republican galaxy,” said Haller.
But he said Morella would likely have difficulty getting votes from traditional conservative Republicans in a statewide primary.
Even some state Republican Party officials talk about the future when they talk about a GOP senator from Maryland.
“[Democratic Sen. Paul] Sarbanes is up in 2000, certainly we are looking into that,” said Maryland Republican Party Chair Joyce Lyons Terhes.
She said grass-roots activism has helped the party win seats in the State House and in the U.S. House of Representatives, and that will eventually lead to a Republican senator.
“I can guarantee a Republican senator very soon,” said Terhes. “We have a farm team in place that will make that a reality.”
An elected office has not yet become a reality for Pierpont, despite his previous bids for the Senate, the House and the governor’s office, among other races.
Win or lose, Grace Pierpont said she hopes this campaign will be the last for her husband of 56 years.
“It takes a lot out of him at this age level,” she said.