WASHINGTON – Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger was being swarmed.
In a large Capitol Hill ballroom, the legislator tucked an award plaque under his arm and shook hands as a crowd of military families thanked him for “Operation Hero Miles,” a program that has allowed troops returning from war zones to fly home for free.
An aide noted that the 2nd District Democrat was almost definitely going to be late for a Timonium town hall meeting.
But the freshman congressman can afford a few more minutes soaking up the praise of the military families in Washington. After a bruising and expensive race to win his seat in 2002, Ruppersberger has spent the last two years solidifying his chances for re-election by raising funds, securing a high-profile committee post and endearing himself to the district’s military constituency.
“Dutch is going to win easily,” said Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland Baltimore County political scientist.
Don’t tell that to Jane Brooks, the Republican activist from Dundalk who is challenging Ruppersberger. Asked how much of the vote she expects to win, Brooks shoots back emphatically, “52 percent by 10 p.m.”
Even though no independent polls have been taken in the 2nd District, few think Brooks can win. The lack of polling underscores how lopsided the race is, said pollster Keith Haller.
“Few media outlets would think it worthwhile to commission polls for this or any of the current races,” said Haller, president of Potomac Inc.
But that has not deterred Brooks or Keith Salkowski, a member of the Green Party, who is also challenging Ruppersberger.
Salkowski is a documentary filmmaker from Towson whose main concerns are the war in Iraq and health care. He sees Ruppersberger’s 21 years in elected office as a negative.
“We need less career politicians,” said Salkowski. “There should be more regular people with different life experiences in office.”
But it was Ruppersberger’s career as a Baltimore County councilman and county executive that helped propel him to victory in 2002, when Rep. Robert Ehrlich left the 2nd District seat to run for governor.
County Executive Ruppersberger survived an expensive primary in 2002 only to face a general election race against Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican who had previously held the 2nd District seat for four terms. The match-up drew national attention, as Democrats saw an opportunity to pick up a Republican House seat.
That contest was also hugely expensive: Ruppersberger raised $1.2 million to just over $1 million for Bentley and $799,148 for Oz Bengur, his main opponent in the Democratic primary.
Polls showed a horserace in the weeks before Election Day, but Ruppersberger wound up beating Bentley by a comfortable 9 percentage points.
He has not raised as much money since then, but he has not had to: While Ruppersberger’s last filing with the Federal Election Commission showed he had raised $682,539, Brooks reported raising just $23,469. Salkowski has not raised the minimum $5,000 that would require him to file a report with the FEC.
There are other factors in Ruppersberger’s favor this year.
In his first term, he secured a seat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, a high-profile assignment that the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein called “a coup for a freshman legislator.” The committee assignment is particularly valuable in the 2nd District, which is home to the National Security Agency.
Although the secretive nature of the committee limits what he can say, Ruppersberger eagerly discusses intelligence issues and calls his intelligence work the most rewarding part of his Hill experience.
“I was hesitant about being just one in a group of 435,” he said of the move from county executive to Congress. “But sitting on the committee really makes me feel like I am doing something important for the country.”
But Brooks thinks that voters will look beyond the past two years. She believes voters will reject Ruppersberger because he is not conservative enough for the district, which was represented by Republicans for 18 years before the 2002 election.
“Issues of morality and patriotism are on the ballot, and a lot of people in the district are going to change the way they’ve voted,” said Brooks.
She has made her opposition to abortion a central part of her campaign. Ruppersberger supports abortion rights, but has received low scores from pro-choice groups because of his opposition to partial-birth abortion.
Ruppersberger has also received high scores from labor and environmental groups, which typically support Democrats, and low scores from anti-tax and business organizations.
But local Republicans say the 2nd District today is not the same district that was held by the GOP for all those years.
Redrawn before the 2002 election, the district gained solidly Democratic precincts in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, while losing conservative ones in northern Baltimore County.
The Maryland Board of Elections said there were 199,572 Democrats in the district and only 81,266 Republicans for this year’s primary elections, the result of what Brooks called “gerrymandering gone wild.” Even if she could win the district’s 37,358 independent voters, it would not come near to closing the gap.
“The entire Republican part of the district was gutted out by state Democrats,” said Chris Cavey, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee.
And while the challengers scramble for funds and for media attention, the incumbent has no such troubles.
Ruppersberger’s key legislative accomplishment — setting up Operation Hero Miles and then pushing through legislation to make it permanent — has drawn wide coverage in both the local and national media. While Ruppersberger has landed prime-time interviews with CNN and the Fox News Channel, his opponents have found it difficult to get mentions in local newspapers.
Operation Hero Miles has also made Ruppersberger popular with the military, a significant constituency in a district that encompasses Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Because challengers do not get much media coverage, it is crucial for them to “raise their profiles with voters through television, radio and direct mail activities,” said Haller.
But the challengers’ fund-raising difficulties make it nearly impossible to overcome the built-in name recognition advantage Ruppersberger enjoys, he said.
That advantage was underscored Tuesday, when Ruppersberger stopped by Brooks’ hometown of Dundalk to pick up another plaque — this one from the National Guard Association of Maryland.
Cavey conceded that Brooks has a tough road ahead of her.
“Jane is a good candidate, but it is hard to overcome the gerrymandering disadvantage and probably harder to overcome the fundraising disadvantage,” he said.
-30- CNS 10-27-04