WASHINGTON – Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has focused much of her gubernatorial campaign on Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, leaving fellow Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger to fend for himself in the 2nd District race for Congress.
But that seems to be the way they like it.
Analysts say Townsend may be seen as too liberal for her coattails to do any good for Ruppersberger in the moderate 2nd District. And there is little for Townsend to gain by campaigning in the suburban Baltimore district that is currently held by her GOP rival, Rep. Robert Ehrlich.
“Ruppersberger needs working-class moderate conservatives to win that seat and he knows it,” said Tom Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “That’s why they’re playing nice but they won’t be on the ticket together.”
The only way that could change is if the race, currently a dead heat, turns negative and Ruppersberger needs to tap Townsend to energize the base Democratic vote, analysts say.
“If he’s going to do it, he’s got to do it in the next week or two,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University who moderated a debate between Ruppersberger and his Republican opponent, Helen Delich Bentley.
During that debate, Vatz said, Ruppersberger responded cautiously when asked if he endorsed Townsend.
“He only said he thought very highly of her. He said he won’t use the `E’ word,” Vatz said.
Neither Townsend nor Ruppersberger has formally endorsed the other. While Townsend attends numerous events in Baltimore City, she rarely visits Baltimore, Anne Arundel or Harford counties, which make up the 2nd District.
Ruppersberger spokesman Rick Binetti said the two Democrats rarely campaign together, but that is “not a problem.”
“She’s running for statewide office and even though the Democratic message is the same, the issues aren’t the same,” Binetti said.
Ehrlich and Bentley, by contrast, embraced each other during the primary campaign.
The 2nd District seat has been held by a Republican for 18 years and, even though it was made more Democratic in this year’s redistricting, Ruppersberger still has a fight on his hands.
A poll released Tuesday by Potomac Inc. gave Bentley 44 percent of the vote to Ruppersberger’s 43 percent. Bentley held the seat from 1984 to 1994, when Ehrlich succeeded her.
Schaller said lingering resentment over Ruppersberger’s actions as Baltimore County Executive could create problems: Ruppersberger tried unsuccessfully to condemn Dundalk-area housing to make way for a new waterfront community and he backed an unpopular expansion of the county jail in Towson.
“There will be protest votes that, despite union leadership saying, `Democrat,’ behind that curtain Joe Six-pack will vote Bentley,” Schaller said. “Working-class white men will vote Ehrlich. If they vote Ehrlich, they’ll vote Bentley.”
James Roberts, chairman of the political science department at Towson University, said Ruppersberger could get around that by focusing on the national importance of the race. The 2nd District is one of a handful in the nation that could give control of the House back to Democrats.
“If he wants to erase the protest votes, he has to make it a national vote and make it clear that this not only affects the district, but what happens in the House,” Roberts said. “Don’t vote for me, vote for the party. That’s the way to get around it.”
Townsend spokeswoman Kate Philips said Ruppersberger would be smart to emphasize the national prominence of his race.
“His race is important. It would be wise to talk about this as a national thing. It is a national thing,” she said.
But Binetti said they will focus on getting Ruppersberger out on the campaign trail and on educating voters about “Bentley’s horrible, horrible voting record in Congress” against working families.
“It’s about Dutch out down there, knocking on as many doors and shaking as many hand as possible,” Binetti said.
Roberts said knocking on doors might not be enough against Bentley, a veteran congresswoman, without an endorsement by Townsend.
“If there were anyone else running against Ruppersberger, I’d say he’d win, but Bentley has name recognition and is a masterful choice,” he said.
“He’s not loved. He’s well-known, but he’s not loved,” Roberts said. “He’s very visible, very powerful, but I’m not going to say he’s very popular.”