WASHINGTON – Rep. Connie Morella has beaten the odds before, but she met her match in an organized Democratic effort that began with redistricting a year ago and continued through an efficient Election Day get-out-the-vote operation, analysts said.
Democrat Chris Van Hollen beat the eight-term incumbent Tuesday by a margin of 52-48 percent. It was a far different finish than the statistical dead heat polls had been showing with less than a week to go in the 8th District race for Congress.
The Democratic strategy of “loading up the district with hardcore Democrats,” in redistricting and casting the race as a chance to wrest the House from Republicans were two “knockout punches,” said Blair Lee, political columnist for the Montgomery Journal.
“When the Republicans took over the White House, it was a wake-up call for the 8th District. They began to realize Connie has an R at the end of her name,” Lee said. “She was fighting against time.”
She was also fighting against one of the most aggressive grass-roots campaigns Montgomery County has ever seen, said pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Inc.
More than 2,000 volunteers turned out on Election Day for Van Hollen, compared to 600 for Morella, and his campaign had nearly four times as many vehicles to take voters to the polls, according to both campaigns.
“He has people who are willing to walk through walls for him,” said American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman.
Haller said the Van Hollen campaign “was very agile and smart and expensive and it did what it needed to do . . . to offset Morella’s innate popularity.”
In the past, Morella’s popularity as a moderate Republican and her strong constituent service have been enough to win overwhelming support in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1.
But Tuesday, she was beaten by heavy turnout in newer parts of the district, especially Takoma Park and Silver Spring, according to her campaign spokesman Jarrod Agen.
In Prince George’s County, which brought 11,550 registered Democrats to the district, Van Hollen beat Morella 5,463 to 1,379. Even in her home base of Montgomery County, Morella lost 101,112 to 96,468.
The key voters were Democrats who supported Morella in the past, but responded to Van Hollen’s partisan pitch, said pollster Carol Arscott of Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc.
“Morella was accustomed to getting 30 to 40 percent of the Democratic vote, and she didn’t get it this time,” Arscott said. “(Van Hollen’s) appeal to party loyalty worked very well with the Washington-savvy voters of Montgomery County.”
It worked especially well with Democratic women, who have been a mainstay of Morella’s in the past, said both Haller and Lee.
“The Democratic women’s vote was the key,” Lee said. “They are getting beyond the need to break glass ceilings . . . and will vote for a man over a woman if the issues are right.”
In this election, the candidates were nearly identical on the issues, leaving some voters choosing between the parties.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Elizabeth Purcell, a Bethesda elementary school teacher. “(Morella’s) been a wonderful representative, but unfortunately I don’t like the direction Bush is taking us with war and I want to send a message.”
That message might not be very powerful now that Van Hollen is a freshman Democrat in a Republican House.
“It’s a tough spot for him,” Agen said. “He’s got to deal with a Republican governor and the Republican leadership in the House.”
But in an election in which only four other Republican incumbents were ousted from the House nationally, Van Hollen’s victory stands out.
“(It) is probably the brightest spot for the Democrats,” Lichtman said.