WASHINGTON – A newspaper endorsement might not be the deciding factorin a typical congressional race, but the “fabulous, neck-and-neck” 8thDistrict Democratic primary is anything but typical.
So when state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen found out late Wednesdaythat he had been endorsed by The Washington Post, his campaign printed5,000 fliers that volunteers were handing out by 6 a.m. Thursday at everyMetro stop in Montgomery County.
American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman calls the endorsement a possible trump card in an unpredictable, nationally watchedrace, which could hinge on voter turnout and the undecided vote.
“We’re in for an absolutely fabulous, neck-and-neck race that may well come down to which candidate is better able to get their supporters tothe polls,” Lichtman said.
Van Hollen and Delegate Mark Shriver top a crowded Democratic fieldthat is jockeying for a chance to unseat longtime Rep. Connie Morella,R-Bethesda, in a district that was made much more heavily Democratic inredistricting this year.
The race has drawn national attention because of the possibility that Democrats could gain one of the handful of seats they need to take overcontrol of the House. That has brought record-breaking amounts of moneyto the race: Shriver has raised more than $2.5 million, Van Hollen hasmore than $1.4 million and Ira Shapiro has brought in about $800,000.
In the last week of the primary campaign alone, Shriver and Van Hollen expect to spend $650,000 each.
Van Hollen, whose supporters consistently vote in the primaries, is capitalizing on his Post endorsement with a series of ads. Shriver, whowill likely be helped by a high voter turnout, is pouring his resourcesinto a last- minute get-out-the-vote campaign.
That is particularly important for Shriver in Prince George’s County precincts that were added to the district this year: He has strong supportamong African-American voters, who were almost twice as likely to beundecided as other voters.
A mid-August poll by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications found31 percent of likely primary voters supported Shriver, 30 percent backedVan Hollen and 14 percent were for Shapiro. Democrat Deborah Vollmer, whohas spent less than $4,000 on her campaign, had 4 percent. The poll had amargin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.
A different poll for The (Baltimore) Sun and the Gazette newspapersfound that one out of five likely voters were undecided heading into thelast week of August. Those voters are the ones the Shapiro campaign iscounting on, said spokeswoman Sarah Rosen, who is banking on high voterturnout Tuesday.
“Candidates often pray for rain because they know supporters will comeout regardless,” Rosen said. “We’re not praying for rain.”
She said Shapiro, who suspended his campaign this weekend to observeRosh Hashana, will embark on a “24-hour marathon” of campaigning,beginning Sunday night.
The campaign is praying that undecided voters who see Shapiro or his campaign literature will be swayed by his national experience as a chieftrade negotiator and ambassador in the Clinton White House.
Susan Labin was a Shriver supporter until she saw Shapiro at a Tuesday debate, where she was impressed by his experience and judgment.
“I want a candidate who can deal with high-level people on thecritical life-or-death issues that the nation faces,” she said. “I feelmore positive about his electability now.”
But beating Morella will take more than positive feelings. Themoderate Republican has repeatedly beaten back well-funded Democrats inthe Democratic- leaning district, and this year’s primary has oftenfocused on which Democrat is best suited to unseat the eight-termincumbent.
Morella’s challenger may ultimately be selected by just a handful of votes. Out of 323,668 registered voters in the 8th District, just overhalf are registered Democrats, and Lichtman said he expects a turnout of80,000 at the very most.
“We’re just poised on the edge of a perfect race like the perfectstorm,” he said. “This one is too close to call.”