WALDORF – As campaign staff hung signs at the American Legion post here, Ken Lake Sr. stepped over from the bar and asked a question that sums up the challenge for Brad Jewitt’s 5th District congressional campaign.
“Brad Jewitt? Who’s that?” the Vietnam Veteran asked.
Jewitt is the Republican Party favorite to take on Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, a popular 12-term incumbent in the 5th District with a staggering campaign bank account and one of the top leadership positions in the House.
But Jewitt is undaunted. He quit his job as a civilian employee of the Marine Corps to run for office full-time in the district, which includes parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and all of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties.
“I don’t look for a pat on the back on that,” said Jewitt, who would have been barred by the Hatch Act from running for office while still a federal employee.
“But it shows my commitment,” he said. “When you are running against Steny Hoyer, there is not a day to lose.”
The state Republican Party stops just short of endorsing Jewitt, but Executive Director Eric Sutton said he has the party’s support in the primary and beyond.
“We believe that Brad Jewitt is the strongest candidate to take on Hoyer. He brings a lot to the table,” said Sutton. “He has a good position on creating jobs and supporting small business.”
But Jewitt first needs to get past the primary, where the Prince George’s County resident faces 2002 Republican nominee Joe Crawford and political newcomer Patrick Flaherty, both of whom are from Southern Maryland.
If anyone has name recognition with Southern Maryland voters, it is Crawford, a self-described anti-abortion, pro-gun conservative who ran against Hoyer in 2002. In a primary where few voters have a firm grasp of the three candidates’ positions, name recognition could mean everything, said Charles County Republican Chairman John Rutherford.
“It’s really, really tough to say how much of it is strictly a matter of name recognition,” Rutherford said. “I honestly don’t know how well voters know the difference between Crawford and Jewitt.”
Besides being better known, Crawford said he better reflects the conservative values of the community.
“Hoyer and I are polar opposites. I give the people something to vote for,” said Crawford. “If there is no difference between Hoyer and Jewitt, why would you vote for the guy with no experience?”
Flaherty — the third candidate — is a small businessman who calls Hoyer “a traitor” in his campaign literature for supporting the Campaign Reform Act of 2002, among other actions. Flaherty’s campaign calls for overturning both the campaign act, which he said limits political speech, and the Patriot Act.
But Flaherty is a political newcomer, and most say he entered the race too late to make much impact.
“In my opinion it is going to be a race between Jewitt and Crawford,” Rutherford said.
At his campaign stop in Waldorf, Jewitt worked the small crowd like an old hand. Dressed in khakis and a blue oxford shirt with “Jewitt for Congress” embroidered on the chest, the former mayor of Berwyn Heights regaled the handful of people at the American Legion with campaign promises and digs against Hoyer.
“Steny Hoyer has been overtaken by his party representation role rather than representing his district,” Jewitt shouted to the small crowd, most of whom were campaign volunteers.
The crowd clapped. Folding chairs were stacked against the wall, waiting for the voters who never showed up.
Jewitt promises to support small business, make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent and improve defense and homeland security. A 14-year Marine Corps veteran, he hopes his background plays well in Southern Maryland, with its many military facilities.
Jewitt said he has raised about $50,000 for the primary. Crawford and Flaherty have not hit the $5,000 in campaign contributions that would require them to submit a report to the Federal Election Commission.
Hoyer, by contrast, has nearly $600,000 for his campaign, according to the FEC. The House Democratic whip has never been in serious re-election danger since voters sent him to Congress in 1981, even when faced with deep-pocketed challengers with strong political resumes.
But Jewitt said his professional campaign and his fund raising so far show he can organize support and raise the money to campaign against the incumbent.
“There are in-state and out-of-state contributors who are waiting until after March to help with a campaign against Steny Hoyer,” Jewitt said.
But in order to win that campaign, a Republican challenger would need to ride the president’s coattails or convince voters that Hoyer has put Democratic Party goals before service to his district, said Joseph Cooper, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.
Cooper said it would be hard to make such a case against Hoyer, and he questions whether Bush will have coattails to ride on this year “unless things turn around quite a bit.”
But the Republicans refuse to heed the naysayers.
“Too many times, too many people have seen that the improbable can happen. There are too many instances of that,” said Rutherford.
As for Lake, he never supported Hoyer. Back at the American Legion bar after the rally, he said Jewitt has his vote. But he wondered if Jewitt has the appeal to make it past the primary.
“He just doesn’t have any name recognition down here,” Lake said.
-30- CNS 02-26-04