WASHINGTON – Before he declared his bid for Congress, Democrat Bennett Bozman phoned to see if the party’s unsuccessful 1st District nominee from 1998 would jump back into the race against Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville.
Bozman was taken aback by Irving Pinder’s swift and emphatic no, and asked why not.
“Unfortunately, you are going to need lots and lots of money to run against an incumbent,” said Pinder, who lost to Gilchrest by a 69-30 margin. “It would take almost a million dollars to mount a real challenge.”
Bozman is around $940,000 shy of the mark.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Bozman has raised $59,831, compared to Gilchrest’s $188,645. Bozman knows he would need additional money “to get his message out,” but he is more optimistic than most about his chances to crack the Republican hold on the 1st District.
“I personally think it is going pretty well,” he said. “I have gotten a good reception everywhere I have gone on this campaign.”
He has some assets that Gilchrest’s recent challengers have not enjoyed, namely more than 20 years as an elected official. Bozman has been a state delegate from Worcester County since 1991 and he was a county commissioner there from 1978 to 1990.
Delegate Henry Heller, D-Montgomery, thinks that Bozman’s “straightforward, low-key” personality connects with voters.
“In this age of computers and sound bites, he is talking to people and listening,” Heller said. He called Bozman a moderate to conservative Democrat who would be a strong, no-nonsense advocate in Congress for the people of the 1st District.
Bozman’s campaign style is much like his legislative style, said Heller, who chairs the Joint Committee on Federal Relations on which they both sit. He said Bozman “doesn’t ever embarrass anyone” and “doesn’t bring attention to himself,” although “he is very intelligent.”
Unfortunately for Bozman, those are exactly the same qualities people ascribe to Gilchrest. Even Heller admitted he could find little negative to say about the Republican incumbent’s character.
Stephen Kehoe, chairman of the Talbot County Democratic Central Committee, said Gilchrest is helped in the district by the “perception that he is a moderate.”
“I think that Rep. Gilchrest got in at the right time (and) he doesn’t do anything to upset the district,” Kehoe said.
Delegate Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said that as a result of Gilchrest’s moderation there has not been an impassioned call for his defeat.
“I think that Bozman has an uphill battle because he is running against an entrenched incumbent who hasn’t created many enemies,” said Busch. “For Bozman to be successful, the tide has to turn toward Democrats on the national level.”
Busch and many other Democrats echoed Worcester County Republican Central Committee Chairman Larry Schrawder’s assessment that “Gilchrest is a. . .centrist and he calls the shots as he sees them.”
His centrist credentials are buttressed by approval of his voting record from groups that are typically on opposite sides of issues. The League of Conservation Voters gives Gilchrest a lifetime score of 72 percent, while the National Federation of Independent Business gives him a 93 percent rating.
“He is for us all the way down the line,” said NFIB spokesman Matt Latimer, adding that Gilchrest “supports a lot of things for small businesses.”
Gilchrest won the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, even though its score for his voting record last year was 56 percent.
“He has been quite good on coastal issues,” the league’s political director, Betsy Loyless, said of Gilchrest. “He is accessible and most often does the right thing. In our opinion, he deserves to be re-elected.”
Bozman took umbrage with the League’s endorsement. He said that his score for his State House voting record, an 86 percent according to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, shows his pro-environment positions.
“I don’t know why they haven’t endorsed me,” he said. “Maybe they don’t know me.”
Loyless acknowledged that Bozman had a good score this year, but she said the score suggested “a change in his record” which she characterized “as pretty poor” overall.
But Margareta Crampton, of the Maryland AFL-CIO, called Bozman “a wonderful legislator. . .he would be good for working people.”
She said that the AFL-CIO gave Bozman a rating over 60 percent to Gilchrest’s less than 19 percent. But even though it endorsed Bozman in the primary, the union has not endorsed a candidate in the general election in the 1st District.
Allan Lichtman, an American University political scientist, said that it takes more than just interest group ratings to bring people to the voting booths. He said challengers like Bozman need two things to crack the incumbent racket — a burning issue and overwhelming grass-roots support.
Steve Eastaugh, a Democrat who lost to Gilchrest in 1996, agreed that “one of the keys is igniting fires in the grass roots.”
But many local officials said the Democratic Party has done little to help Bozman ignite that fire.
“Quite candidly, he hasn’t been helped much by state Democrats who are asleep at the switch,” said Gene Ransom, chairman of the Queen Anne’s County Democratic Central Committee. “It seems like they have determined that we are going to vote for (Vice President Al) Gore and Democratic incumbents are going to win and we are not going to put out the effort for the other candidates.”
Ransom said that when he drives around the county, he sees signs for Gore and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, but none that champion Bozman.
“The party should be putting forward a united front,” said Ransom. “You might not beat Gilchrest, but you might chip away.”
Bozman himself conceded that the “state party doesn’t have many people out here,” but he said that local party committees are doing a good job pushing his candidacy.
The lukewarm party effort could be neutralized, Lichtman said, with “a burning issue” that drove voters to the polls. Bozman is banking on health care: He said Gilchrest’s inaction on this issue spurred him to enter the race.
“We have had months and months to fix it and nothing has ever happened,” said Bozman. “The guy is out of touch.”
Bozman advocates a health care solution similar to Gore’s plan. On prescription drugs, he believes the government should cover prescription drug costs over $5,000. He also supports the Democratic version of the Patient’s Bill of Rights, which Gore claims covers Americans that the Republican bill leaves out.
Gilchrest backed the Republican version of the Patient’s Bill of Rights. But when asked about his health care positions, he emphasized a bill that lets drug distributors reimport U.S.-manufactured drugs that are sold more cheaply abroad. He said that would lift some of the burden placed on seniors by prescription drug costs.
While Gilchrest said this issue was critical, he doubted that his constituents would vote on prescription drugs alone. He said there is a range of issues and “multiple layers of issues that people are concerned about.”
Others say that it makes little difference which issue brings voters to the polls when an underfunded challenger like Bozman, with little apparent support from his party, faces an entrenched incumbent like Gilchrest.
“The longer they represent a district, the harder it is for a challenger to break through,” said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. “Part of it is the money and part of it is the history they have with the constituents.”
Ralph Gies, a Democrat who challenged Gilchrest unsuccessfully in 1994, agreed.
“Once you get in (office) you are pretty well set,” said Gies. “The public sees your name and they recognize it and they vote for you.”
Bozman is still hopeful, however. And, if hope does not translate into victory, he can still return to the House of Delegates.
But he will be returning with more than he had before. Eastaugh said his campaign left him with 20,000 new friends and a Christmas list longer than he would ever have imagined.