WASHINGTON – By any measure — money, mudslinging or media attention — the Republican congressional primary in the 1st District should be the hottest in the state.
But somehow, the campaign drama in the race between state Sen. Richard Colburn and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest has barely registered with voters.
“There’s a lot of apathy,” said Effie Elzey, a Republican on the Dorchester County Council, who admitted that even she does not care much about the race.
Analysts say that apathy could work to Colburn’s advantage: If the conservative core votes while everyone else stays home, then Colburn, who has tried to paint Gilchrest as too liberal for the district, has a chance to win.
“Who else is going to show up at a primary besides the ones who are really following what’s going on — pro-life, anti-tax, pro-gun Republicans?” asked David Fischer, an attorney who got 36 percent of the vote against Gilchrest in the 2002 primary.
Conservative Republicans who are “fed up” with Gilchrest’s “left” bent will show up, said Fischer.
Colburn, of Dorchester County, has made Gilchrest’s voting record the central element of his campaign, citing the incumbent’s “liberal” stance on abortion, taxes, gun control and gay marriage as reasons why he does not represent the values of the 1st District.
By contrast, Colburn’s campaign literature calls him a “conservative for Congress,” a claim backed up by the 82 percent approval rating he received from Maryland Business for Responsive Government.
But Gilchrest scoffs at the suggestion that he is too liberal. The seven-term incumbent from Kennedyville was recently named “Hero of the Taxpayer” by Americans for Tax Reform for his support of President Bush’s tax cuts, and he has received awards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The American Conservative Union gave Gilchrest a 62 percent approval rating for his 2003 voting record and Vote for Life, an anti-abortion group, gave him a 44 percent rating.
Gilchrest also challenges Colburn’s assertion that issues like gay marriage and gun control are voters’ top concerns.
“I think he’s wrong,” said Gilchrest, who sees the most pressing issues as stabilizing Iraq, fixing the budget deficit, making health care more affordable and cleaning the environment. Issues like gay marriage are secondary to the general “quality-of-life” legislation Gilchrest said he puts first.
But political philosophy is not the only area where the candidates clash: The race has seen growing accusations of dirty campaigning, which has attracted the attention of The Washington Post, among other outlets.
Early this month, some Eastern Shore residents said they received phone calls from people asking pointed questions about the primary — a practice known as “push polling,” in which questions are designed to subtly smear a candidate.
Each campaign accused the other of push-polling. Both denied it.
Days later, newspapers reported that Colburn’s camp received e-mails from an Andrew Harris, accusing the senator of a history of sexually harassing female interns — a charge Colburn heatedly denied.
Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, and one of three state senators endorsing Colburn, denied sending the e-mail. He said an expert traced the e-mail to a House office building where one of Gilchrest’s committees has its office. Harris wrote to the FBI and the House ethics committee, asking for an investigation into Gilchrest’s “Nixonian” ties to the e-mail.
Gilchrest dismissed Harris’ accusations as “patently absurd” and Gilchrest’s chief of staff, Tony Caligiuri, said he would not put it past the Colburn camp to have concocted the e-mail controversy.
“I’m not going to waste my time on it,” Gilchrest said.
Officials with the FBI and the ethics committee could not comment on the status of any investigations.
Despite all the commotion in the press, however, Erik Robey said the only clue he has seen of a heated primary are Colburn campaign signs scattered along a stretch of Route 2.
“Not many people have taken an interest in this campaign,” said Robey, the vice chairman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Party.
Somerset County Election Director Joanna Emely said congressional primaries rarely produce much hubbub, and she expects turnout this year to be even lower than the 18 percent of eligible voters who came out for the hyped 2002 primary.
Gilchrest said he hopes for a big turnout on March 2, but would not predict numbers.
He refuses to believe that voters don’t care about the primary. Gilchrest said he was surprised by the large turnouts this month at constituent meetings around the district. People at those meetings asked most about Iraq and health care, he said, not about gay marriage.
“I haven’t seen this much interest in a general election in my career,” said Gilchrest.
But Fischer says a small turnout is a certainty, which will mean more activist conservatives at the polls and fewer moderates.
Colburn will need all the help he can get at the polls. The Federal Election Commission said he had raised $119,133 as of Thursday, less than half of Gilchrest’s $283,727. Gilchrest also boasts the backing of the state Republican Party.
Barry Rascovar, a political columnist for the Gazette newspapers, said a longtime incumbent like Gilchrest is tough to beat. His focus on Chesapeake Bay protection, social programs and community outreach has won popular support in Eastern Shore counties and among environmentalists.
But Rascovar concedes that, after 14 years, Gilchrest’s fans might take his staying power for granted and not show up at the polls.
Colburn said he hopes everyone eligible votes in the primary — but he also realizes that low voter turnout might help him.
“I can say that I don’t think that’s democracy in action, but on the other hand, we know there’s going to be a low turnout, so you play with the hand given you,” he said.
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