WASHINGTON – Eighth District candidates Charles “Chuck” Floyd and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., found precious little to agree on during a recent candidates’ forum at B’nai Israel.
They disagreed on tort reform. They disagreed on gay marriage. They disagreed on civil liberties. And, of course, they disagreed on who was going to win this year’s 8th District election.
But they did see eye to eye on one thing: The differences in this year’s choices for the House seat could not be more distinct.
“You have a clear choice this election,” Van Hollen said to a packed room at the Rockville-based Jewish center.
For Floyd, his GOP challenger, the “clear choice” is obvious — himself.
“We’re going to win the election,” said the first-time candidate. “I am results-oriented. My opponent is not . . . he has the wrong agenda.”
But political observers think the wrong agenda might belong to Floyd, a self-described “social moderate” Republican in the heavily Democratic district.
Republican Rep. Connie Morella, a popular moderate, was able to hold the 8th District seat for 16 years, until she was targeted in a 2002 redistricting that resulted in a Democratic registration advantage of 2.25 to 1 over Republicans. She lost to Van Hollen that year.
Even other Republicans acknowledge that Floyd faces rough odds.
“It is a tough district to run in. Connie Morella was very popular, and the district lines haven’t been changed” since 2002, said Steve Abrams, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party.
Abrams could not bring himself to outright disagree with political scientists who describe Floyd’s chances as slim.
“I certainly wouldn’t argue a great deal with those statements, except that Floyd is dogged and he’s working 20 hours a day,” he said.
And dogged he is. Abrams and others said Floyd is regularly at community functions and that every weekend finds him going door-to-door in the district, which includes a sliver of inside-the-Beltway Prince George’s County and most of central and eastern Montgomery County.
“I think he has a chance to win, yeah,” said Joy Kraus, president of the Montgomery County Young Republicans. “Any race in Montgomery County is difficult to win. He seems to be portraying himself as a more moderate Republican. Anything’s possible.”
But moderate is a relative term.
Gazette newspapers political columnist Barry Rascovar thinks that Floyd, far from being a moderate, may be too right-wing even for his own party.
“I think Floyd will only get half of the Republican vote,” Rascovar said. “There’s no question, Van Hollen is a very committed liberal in Congress . . . but liberal is not a dirty word in the county.”
Rascovar thinks Floyd’s positions will alienate most voters in the district.
“It’s pretty clear the type of Republican that voters in Montgomery County and the rest of Maryland will admire . . . and Floyd does not fit that mold,” he said. “Until the Republican Party comes up with more appealing candidates, they’re not going to challenge the likes of Chris Van Hollen.”
But Floyd disagreed, saying he has talked to more than 50,000 voters from both sides of the aisle and that many side with him, not Van Hollen.
Floyd is a small-government Republican, who opposed the just-ended assault-weapons ban and backs tort reform. He believes in a strong national defense, and a definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, among other issues.
Van Hollen, on the other hand, supports the assault-weapons ban and believes that homeland security should not come at the expense of a loss of civil liberties. Instead of tort reform to solve the health problem, he believes that governments should be allowed to reimport lower-cost prescription drugs from other countries.
But Van Hollen and Floyd have been just as likely to define their own positions by attacking their opponent’s in what has become one of the most caustic congressional races in the state this year.
Each candidate took the opportunity at the B’nai Israel microphone to accuse his opponent of dirty campaign tricks, chiding one another for tactics that they said ranged from stealing signs and literature to spreading false information about the campaign on the Internet.
“He’s even had his campaign workers come after my campaign workers to remove literature,” Floyd said of Van Hollen, accusing the incumbent of a history of such tactics. “My opponent is a poster child for dirty tricks.”
In turn, Van Hollen accused Floyd of making “misstatement after misstatement, untruth after untruth” during the campaign.
He said Floyd should apologize to the public for such tricks as launching Web sites using the incumbent’s name, such as www.vanhollen2004.org, www.vanhollen2004.net, www.vanhollen2004.com and www.chrisvandonothing.com. The sites, paid for by Floyd for Congress, criticize the congressman’s voting record on a variety of issues, such as taxes, small businesses, and the war on terrorism.
“I think that this kind of tactic will backfire here,” Van Hollen said after the forum. “I think people resent it, and I think it insults their intelligence.”
But Floyd said the sites provide voters with information they need to make an informed decision on Election Day, since he said Van Hollen has refused to debate him one on one.
“If he (Van Hollen) agrees to a real debate, we will not only take down the sites, but we’ll give him the domains,” Floyd said.
But at the B’nai Israel event, at least, while Van Hollen’s comments about dirty campaign tricks drew applause from the crowd, Floyd’s comments were met with ambivalence and even a few snickers.
Trevor Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland political communications professor, said the fact that Van Hollen has elicited few complaints from voters during his first term “speaks volumes” about how he is faring among constituents.
“The fact that he hasn’t done anything to make people dislike him, that just means he’s doing his job,” Parry-Giles said. “I think people see him as a potential up-and-comer.”
That is reflected in Van Hollen’s campaign fund-raising. After spending almost $3 million on one of the most expensive races in the country two years ago, the first-term Democrat has rebounded in this election cycle, raising $1.6 million and spending $755,482, according to his latest report with the Federal Election Commission.
But Floyd had raised a respectable $313,178 as of Sept. 30 and spent $311,304, according to his FEC filing.
Despite the fact that most state experts are calling this race an easy one, both Van Hollen and the local Democratic Party insist they are taking Floyd’s challenge seriously.
“I wouldn’t call it easy,” said Milton Minneman, communications director for the Montgomery County Democratic Party. “Although we have a predominantly Democratic majority in the area . . . Maryland and Montgomery County in particular has a very high percentage of non-affiliated voters.”
Floyd is counting on those voters and disenchanted Democrats to boost him to victory.
“There’s going to be a huge swing vote out there. Huge,” he said in a September interview. “We will have a lot of crossover from Democrats.”
American University history professor Allan Lichtman had a more blunt assessment of the odds in the 8th District.
“From the impartial view of the observer, Floyd has as much chance of getting elected as the King of England,” Lichtman said. “It’s pretty typical, a sure bet for the incumbent.”
But John Trevithick, an audience member from North Bethesda, said that before the forum began, he knew little about Floyd, except that he was Van Hollen’s opponent.
After he had a chance to hear both candidates speak, Trevithick had only one thing to say.
“He’s very conservative — too conservative for this district,” he said of Floyd.
-30- CNS 10-22-04