WASHINGTON – They tried.
They shook hands. They knocked on doors. They waved signs. One even walked more than 200 miles across his district in an effort to draw attention to his campaign.
But the challengers in Maryland’s congressional races found their grass-roots campaigns no match for the power of elected office.
All eight House members from Maryland and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, won re-election by huge margins Tuesday, flexing the political muscle of incumbency. Even the closest races were decided by double-digit margins, while some challengers lost by a 6- to-1 margin.
“It’s really hard,” said Irving Pinder, who ran unsuccessfully against 1st District Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville. “The system is not set up for a working man to run for Congress.”
The campaign finance system in particular is stacked against outsiders.
An analysis released Friday by Common Cause said congressional incumbents, on average, enjoyed a 5-to-1 fund-raising advantage over their challengers nationwide. The political watchdog group said 98 percent of House incumbents were re-elected and 90 percent of senators running for re-election were swept back into office.
The financing disparity was no different in Maryland.
In the last month of the campaign alone, Maryland’s incumbents raised $2.7 million — more than 21 times the amount their challengers raised in the same period. In the period leading up to the Sept. 15 primary, the incumbents had raised $3.78 million to the $774,748 for the challengers, four of whom did not even raise the $5,000 required for filing with the Federal Election Commission.
“The current campaign finance system is an incumbent-protection racket destroying real elections. This system fully benefits incumbents and the special interests who fund their campaigns,” Common Cause President Ann McBride said in the report.
“Under the current campaign finance system, those left out in the cold are challengers who don’t have a chance and the American people who don’t have a choice,” she said.
Several of the Maryland challengers thought they could win without playing the money game.
“The answer is not money. The answer is issues,” said Kenneth T. Bosley, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against 2nd District Rep. Robert Ehrlich Jr., R-Timonium.
But Bosley found out that money is the issue.
“The reality is that it is very difficult, in this election virtually impossible, to unseat an incumbent. Challengers face an incredible difficulty,” said Paul Hendrie, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Challengers don’t have access to the PAC [political action committee] and special- interest money on the Hill and on the front end, challengers are discouraged,” said Hendrie.
Hendrie said it becomes a cycle: Lawmakers raise money to scare off serious challengers, which then allows the incumbents to raise even more money.
“They are always raising money … so when they file with the FEC in January, they have this huge war chest that scares challengers off,” he said. “In a race with an incumbent, challengers don’t really stand a chance.”
Timothy McCown, the Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, agreed. McCown learned that it’s not easy keeping your head above water during an incumbent popularity wave.
“One thing that I learned is that there are all kinds of things that work against first-timers. You don’t have that support base. The party isn’t familiar with you. You have no name recognition and people have no idea what your views are,” he said.
“It took a while to convince people that I wasn’t a fly-by-night fruitcake,” said McCown, the candidate who resorted to walking across the sprawling 6th District in Western Maryland to get his message out.
Other Republican challengers also blamed their losses on party dissension and lack of support from the Maryland GOP.
Ken Kondner, who ran against 7th District Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said the Maryland Republican Party did little to propel his campaign.
“I think Republicans didn’t do a good enough job getting the message to the people,” said Kondner. “There were some in the party that worked to get the message out for candidates all over the state but most worked for individual candidates.
“The Republican Party can talk about unity all it wants but it needs to work to make that unity happen and hopefully that will mean a better result in the future,” he said.
Bob Ostrom, the Republican who challenged 5th District Rep. Steny Hoyer, D- Mitchellville, said party problems on the national level trickled down to the local level and confused voters.
“The Republicans did not have a clear message. The party in Maryland has to go through an identification process and that message has run through every campaign,” said Ostrom.
John Kimble said he is so fed up with the Republican Party, which did not support his 4th District campaign, that he would switch parties if Democrats offered support for his 2000 campaign.
“This lone ranger stuff is no fun,” said Kimble, who lost his for a second time against Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo. “I am going to go where there is help.”
Not all the Republicans were disgruntled.
Colin Harby said that although he didn’t get any support from the party, he felt “great” about his landslide defeat by Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore.
“For a guy who had $11 in my pants, I got 40,000 votes,” said Harby, who lost by an 86-14 percent margin.
Pinder said politics needs “some type of campaign finance reform so working people are able to run and wage a credible campaign.” He doesn’t think he will run again without “more financial backing up front.”
“It’s really tough to run against a four-year incumbent,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over now.”
McCown said he was not discouraged enough to give up running for some elected office, but he doubts that he will run for Congress again anytime soon.
“Elected officials have so many advantages, so many resources that challengers can never get their hands on,” said McCown.
He added that the surprise victory of former pro wrestler and Reform Party gubernatorial candidate Jesse “The Body” Ventura in Minnesota “proved that first- timers can win.
“But it’s kinda like lottery tickets,” he said. “You always have a chance of winning just not a very good chance.” — Capital News Service reporters Matthew Chin, Tracy L. Fercho and Virginia McCord contributed to this report.