CAPE ST. CLAIRE – Conversations slow, eyes focus and fingers point as U.S. Senate candidate E.J. Pipkin saunters through the crowd at a Double T Diner outside Annapolis.
Casually dressed in khakis and a French-blue oxford shirt, the ample-framed and avuncular Republican is instantly recognized, thanks to a wave of television advertisements now blanketing the state.
The vigorous, largely self-financed ad campaign that has been running since early September accuses Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., of not doing enough to ensure the health of the Chesapeake Bay, of increasing taxes and failing to support military personnel.
Mikulski’s campaign has stepped up its counterattack in recent weeks, portraying Pipkin as a reckless junk-bond trader whose campaign is in lock-step with the “national Republican playbook.”
And the two are getting more exposure this week, in a televised debate Monday and a scheduled radio debate Friday.
But analysts say that while there is certainly a campaign underway, there is not necessarily a race.
A poll conducted earlier this month showed Pipkin trailing Mikulski 58 percent to 34 percent, with 6 percent undecided and 1 percent each backing the Green Party and Constitution Party candidates. The Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
“Pipkin is in tight spot,” said Michael Korzi, assistant professor of political science at Towson State University. “He has a number of hurdles to climb.”
The biggest is the fact that Mikulski, 68, is a long-standing, well-regarded Democratic incumbent in a state that favors her party, Korzi said. The Baltimore native has been in Congress since 1976 and in the Senate since 1986. She won her last race with 71 percent of the vote.
While Republican Robert Ehrlich was able to beat Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 governor’s race — an upset that helped spur Pipkin to challenge Mikulski — Korzi said “Ehrlich was a better candidate, having served at the federal level and worked his way up.”
“More importantly,” he said, “Townsend pales in comparison to Mikulski, who is tested and has no baggage.”
But Pipkin, a one-term state senator and former Wall Street bond trader, is undeterred.
“It’s time for a change,” said an upbeat Pipkin, 47, between sips of tea at the Double T. “I offer a very positive and different vision for the U.S. Senate seat that will be very appealing to many in Maryland.”
The Dundalk native said voters are beginning to recognize the sharp variations between his platform and Mikulski’s. He cites fundamental differences on issues from taxes to the health of the bay, adding that Mikulski’s “voting record is very out of step with the citizens of Maryland.”
The bay has been the focus of a major Pipkin television advertising campaign. The ad, which began running Oct. 7, says that oysters, crabs and bay grasses have all declined on Mikulski’s watch.
“Barbara Mikulski has been in Washington for 28 years and by any metric . . . the Chesapeake Bay has declined,” Pipkin said. “The fact is, Mikulski is not bringing in the federal dollars to deal with the problem.”
Mikulski campaign manager Mike Morrill accused Pipkin of “deception and distortion” in the ads.
“He fills his ads with bogus charges, and hopes that Maryland voters won’t see through the fabrications,” Morrill said.
But Pipkin’s campaign said its claims on bay losses are backed up in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2003 State of the Bay Report. And Pipkin won backing last week from Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who noted that the state’s Democrats did little to help stop Site 104, a dredge-spoil dumping project in the bay that Pipkin actively opposed as a private citizen.
But others said it is a stretch to tie the bay’s problems to inaction by Mikulski, who got a 79 percent approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters in 2003.
“Senator Mikulski has obtained millions of dollars in federal funds for sewage treatment upgrades for the bay,” said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The foundation does not endorse candidates, but Coble said federal money now helping the bay was obtained by Mikulski.
Those comments were echoed by Maryland Watermen’s Association President Larry Simns, who said Mikulski has been able to do a lot for the bay “because of her seniority on the Hill.”
Earlier this month, Mikulski’s campaign launched its own television ads to counter what Morrill called Pipkin’s distortions of her record on tax increases and the bay.
The sparring continued Monday at a debate sponsored by Maryland Public Television and Maryland’s League of Women Voters.
Pipkin used the debate to challenge Mikulski’s voting record on issues ranging from Iraq to taxes, charging her with promoting a liberal agenda antithetical to the views of most Marylanders.
“The incumbent has a record of not supporting the troops or defense,” said Pipkin, who then took Mikulski to task for voting against a bill to ban flag burning.
Mikulski charged Pipkin with being in lock-step with the national Republican Party, saying his pattern of attack’s fit the party’s “playbook.”
A second debate is scheduled for Friday on Washington radio station WTOP.
Pollster Patrick Gonzales said the spate of ads and this week’s debates give both candidates an ideal opportunity to show the relevancy of their message, a critical requirement for any successful campaign. Confusing or not, the ads and their frequency have been effective, he said.
“Both are aggressively trying to communicate their message and both have been effective,” Gonzales said. “They’re clear and do a good job conveying their positions.”
Missing from this week’s debates are Green Party candidate Marian Allwine and Constitution Party nominee Thomas Trump. Both are on the Nov. 2 ballot, but were excluded from the debates so they could focus on “viable” candidates, organizers said.
Both third-party candidates are running on shoe-string budgets compared to their more established rivals. Neither has raised the $5,000 that would require them to file a report with the Federal Election Commission.
Mikulski’s campaign, on the other hand, had spent more than $3.9 million and still had roughly $2.5 million on hand as of her Oct. 15 filing. Pipkin’s latest FEC report shows that he had spent $1.3 million as of Sept. 30 and had $114,247 on hand.
Pipkin, who spent more than $500,000 of his own fortune to win his state Senate seat in 2002, estimated last week that he had already given “over $1 million” of his own funds to his federal campaign.
Korzi said Pipkin has to raise and spend more than Mikulski to win, and said it is telling that Pipkin does not seem to be getting the same level of support from the national Republican Party as candidates in other races.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen confirmed that Pipkin has received “no aid that I’m aware of.”
But Pipkin downplays the campaign’s reliance on his own deep pockets.
“She’s going to outspend me in this race three-to-one,” he acknowledged back at the Double T. “But you know what, people don’t care where the money comes from, they just want to know what (this election) will mean for their families.”
-30- CNS 10-21-04