ROCKVILLE – Eighth District congressional candidates Connie Morella and Chris Van Hollen had been debating at the packed B’nai Israel congregation for nearly an hour when the results of an audience straw poll came in.
The crowd gave slightly higher favorable ratings to Morella, an eight-term Republican incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, but it ended up giving more votes to Van Hollen, the Democratic state senator.
Morella cut short her comments on Social Security, and looked at the audience.
“Is there a disconnect with my voting? What am I doing wrong?” she asked, pausing to let her words sink in. “I just look at what I see right now and say maybe it’s out of my hands. If that’s the case, it’s kind of sad for me.”
For the first time in her 16-year congressional career, Morella finds herself asking such questions, as she fights for her political life in a campaign that has drawn national attention.
“Connie is a fixture around here. Everybody knows who she is. If she weren’t the incumbent, I think (Van Hollen) would be a slam dunk,” said Mike Brick, a voter from Chevy Chase.
But polls have shown the race is still too close to call. Knocking off Morella has never been an easy thing to do — she is one of the most liberal Republicans in the House and fiercely protects her image as an independent voice who tends carefully to constituent concerns.
Democrats this year targeted the 8th District as one of the handful of seats they need to regain control of the House. State Democrats took up the challenge, redrawing Morella’s already heavily Democratic Montgomery County district to give it a voter registration that leans more than 2 to 1 in favor of Democrats.
Van Hollen is pressing the message that a vote for Morella is a vote for the Republican leadership of the House.
“The race is not about personalities,” he said. “The people who are driving the train control the agenda, and if you don’t like the direction the train is going, you have to change the driver.
“Every year people running for office tell you this is the critical year and the stakes could not be higher. You know what? This year it’s true,” he said.
The message is resonating with many Democratic voters.
“I like (Morella) and I think she’s done a good job, but nationally, I want to see more of the approaches the Democrats are taking,” said Kensington resident Brian Cronin, who has voted for Morella in the past, but is supporting Van Hollen this year.
It can be a tough sell. The issues that Van Hollen champions — education, gun control, the environment — are also her issues. Morella often votes against her own party, like her vote against a resolution that gave President Bush power to initiate war with Iraq.
The stakes are so high that big-name politicians have been sweeping through the district to raise money for the candidates: President Bush came for Morella, while Van Hollen has hosted Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former Vice President Al Gore.
Big names have meant big money. Federal Election Commission filings said that, as of Sept. 30, Morella had raised more than $2.2 million and Van Hollen had brought in over $500,000 since winning the most expensive Democratic primary in the nation.
He faced nearly empty coffers after spending $1.25 million to beat Delegate Mark Shriver, D-Montgomery, an early favorite who raised nearly $1 million more than Van Hollen.
Since then, contributions have been coming in at an “incredible and enthusiastic pace,” said Van Hollen campaign manager Steve Jost. In the two weeks after the FEC filing, the campaign raised an average of more than $20,000 a day.
Van Hollen hopes it will be enough money to get out his message that a vote for Morella is a vote for the Republican leadership of the House. But Morella’s race may not be the linchpin for Democrats, said Montgomery Journal columnist Blair Lee.
“The dirty little secret of this election is the Democrats are not going to take back the House,” Lee said. “The question is, are voters of the 8th District going to realize that before or after the election?”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report estimated recently that Democrats need to win all 16 competitive House races in the country in order to gain the majority.
Morella has turned the leadership question around, saying she will be even more indispensable to her constituents, many of whom are federal workers and retirees, if the GOP stays in charge.
“Now, more than ever, you need to have somebody who has access. You need someone who’s not going to start at the bottom of the heap,” she said.
Van Hollen has countered that Morella, chair of the District of Columbia subcommittee, has little influence on her party in the national arena. In Annapolis, Van Hollen quickly rose to become vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, where he developed a reputation for pushing legislation through.
“You can spend an awful lot of time pushing the right button, but unless there’s a tie vote, pushing the right button is not enough,” he said.
Morella has thrown out some of the old rules as she fights to win in a new district, which no longer has her strongholds in upper Montgomery County but added 12 heavily Democratic precincts she has never represented in Prince George’s County.
She went on the attack in a recent television ad — a first for Morella. She said the “tongue-in-cheek” ad was an attempt to show voters that Van Hollen is not as appealing as she is. It accused him of cutting income taxes for the wealthy and ended with: “To hear this guy talk, you’d think he was the Republican.”
Democrats attacked the ad as negative, saying the vote it cited was for an across-the-board tax cut . Van Hollen asked that it be pulled from the air.
“It was bizarre, unbelievable,” said American University history professor Allan Lichtman said. “I’ve never seen that in politics before — trying to disavow your own party, and pin it on your opponent.”
Lichtman said the uncharacteristic attack signals trouble for the Morella campaign, which normally does not even mention her opponent in its ads.
“The public finally understands that Connie is vulnerable,” said Terry Lierman, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Morella in 2000. “It’s a whole new ballgame for everybody.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Van Hollen had the momentum up until the sniper . . . in times of crisis, people are a little less open to change,” said Lee, who called the race a toss-up.
Both candidates avoided making a campaign issue out of the sniper attacks. Both have strong gun control records — he championed mandatory trigger locks on handguns sold in Maryland and she was an original co-sponsor of the Brady bill.
Even gun-control groups are split over the race. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence endorsed Morella, while the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and the Montgomery County chapter of the Million Mom March all backed Van Hollen.
In the meantime, polls say the race is still too close to call with just over a week to the election.
“I called (Morella) the unsung political genius of out times, but she’s going to have to top every ounce of that,” Lichtman said.