COLUMBIA – Republican congressional candidate Tony Salazar and his campaign manager hop out of their van, grab pamphlets and signs, and check voter registration records for the Long Reach neighborhood.
Bush/Cheney signs are as noticeable as Kerry/Edwards signs here. One of the houses is registered Republican — a must-hit — but records show that everyone on the street votes regularly, so they decide to hit every house.
“We’ll go to Democratic ones too, if they vote,” Salazar said, “I’m not going to presume just because of party affiliation that they’re happy with their current representative.”
Their current representative is Rep. Elijah Cummings, a five-term incumbent in the 7th District. Salazar, 45, is trying to improve his odds by focusing on potential swing voters in places like Howard County, which is relatively new to the district and which Cummings barely carried in the 2002 election.
But most analysts say the odds are stacked against him.
“No contest. Next question,” said WBAL radio analyst Frank DeFilippo, when asked about Salazar’s chances.
Cummings is popular with his constituents, DeFilippo said, and his position as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus gives him exposure and prestige in the eyes of black voters in Baltimore City.
He said that Maryland is one of the most Democratic states in the country, pointing to a recent Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll that showed Democrat John Kerry leading President Bush by more than 10 percent in the presidential race. None of those are encouraging for Salazar, DeFilippo said.
“With all due respect to Salazar, and my apologies, the numbers just ain’t there,” DeFilippo said.
The district itself is even more lopsided: Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 229,087 to 61, 252, according to February numbers from the Maryland Board of Elections. To win, Salazar would have to get every Republican vote, and more than one-third of the Democrats, a feat considering Cummings’ previous victories.
But Salazar hopes to capitalize on the 2002 redistricting, which added about 75,000 Howard County voters, who are mostly white and conservative. A Howard Country resident himself, Salazar hopes to become the voice of his people, who he says do not feel represented by Cummings.
“Unless you live in West Baltimore County, Congressman Cummings doesn’t care about you,” Salazar said.
But Cummings has spent a lot of time in Howard County since the redistricting, even though he is still working on getting a district office open there, said campaign spokesman Mike Christianson. He said Cummings has been campaigning hard since Congress recessed and is “cautiously optimistic” of his chances for re-election.
But Cummings can be more than cautiously optimistic, said Tom Quirk, a Baltimore County Democrat who called the incumbent a force to be reckoned with.
“I’d be surprised if Salazar got 25 percent of the vote,” said Quirk, who sits on the Chamber of Commerce in Catonsville and is active in Baltimore County politics.
While Salazar has accused Cummings of spending too much time on national issues, those efforts will help Cummings more than hurt him in Baltimore County, Quirk said.
Patrice Webb, a national organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Cummings has worked with her group on the SAFE Act, a bill he co-sponsored that safeguards against parts of the Patriot Act that could threaten individual civil rights, and co-sponsored the End Racial Profiling Act of 2004.
“He’s a champion of civil liberties and civil rights,” said Webb, adding that Cummings has spoken out against voter intimidation that she said occurred in the last presidential election.
Cummings’ name is recognized by everyone in his district, Quirk said. By contrast, Quirk said he saw Salazar walking around an arts fair in Catonsville recently, and no one went up to talk to him.
“Nobody knows the guy,” Quirk said.
Salazar realizes he faces an uphill battle, which is why he hopes to personally introduce himself to every voter who might support him.
Out in Columbia, Salazar and campaign manager Michael Harrison continue making their rounds, checking voter registration, leaving notes and shaking hands. They avoid houses with “Redefeat Bush” signs.
“Just a gut feeling. Someone with a sign like that won’t vote for a Republican,” Salazar said.
His supporters call Salazar the strongest Republican challenger Maryland has had in years.
Brian Harlin, who manufactures campaign merchandise for GOP candidates, believes Salazar’s campaign strategy has been effective and that he should at least win Howard County and make inroads in Baltimore County.
“I think he’s the first really strong candidate we’ve had since the redistricting,” said Harlin, a Republican who ran for Howard County Council in 2002.
Salazar has Republicans energized, said David Keelan, president of the Howard County Republicans Club in Ellicott City. He’s been raising money, has a full campaign staff and quit his job as vice president and general counsel for Provident Bank to run for office, signs that he is running a serious race, Keelan said.
“The Republicans have not had a candidate like Tony in a long time,” Keelan said.
In his latest Federal Election Commission filing, Salazar reported he had loaned his campaign $10,200 and raised another $81,146 by Sept. 30, when he had $21,503 on hand. Even there, however the numbers are stacked against Salazar: Cummings’ FEC filing said he had raised $736,958 in this election cycle and still had $100,621 on hand.
If he doesn’t win this time, Salazar could take Cumming’s seat in the next election, Harlin said. But he added that anything could happen, and Salazar is doing everything he can.
Green Party candidate Virginia Rodino, 29, is less optimistic about her 7th District bid.
“I don’t believe that I’m going to beat Elijah Cummings, but I believe that we have to start somewhere,” Rodino said.
An assistant professor of communications at Bowie State University, Rodino is one of many Green Party candidates in this election who want to demonstrate that the party is a legitimate political force, she said.
Greens provide another option besides the Republicans and Democrats, whose policies are very similar in regards to the war in Iraq, she said. The Green Party opposes the war, and the drain it is causing on money for domestic services, Rodino said.
But Salazar said he is not running to make a statement, he is running to win, and he believes he is on the right track to do just that.
“I think we’re gonna win, oh yeah,” he said.
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