COLLEGE PARK – Republican Thomas Harris concedes he is a long shot to defeat incumbent Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, in the 3rd District this November.
But a long-shot is not so daunting for a man who said he has been homeless, unemployed and laid off.
“I think once people realize I’m giving them a choice, and my conservative message gets out, I think I can beat him,” said Harris, a Baltimore special education teacher and insurance salesman.
That optimism is not shared by most experts.
“On paper, it looks like a big win for Sarbanes,” said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based marketing and research firm. “He should be a cinch for re-election, given the district makeup and the trends in Maryland.”
Harris not only faces an incumbent, but one whose father, Paul Sarbanes, spent 30 years in the Senate.
“He’s facing an incumbent with a powerhouse name, so as with most challengers, I suspect he’ll go down in defeat,” said Paul S. Herrnson, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
And like most challengers, Harris trails the incumbent badly in campaign funds.
Sarbanes had raised $923,802 and had $390,421 on hand as of June 30, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, while Harris said he has raised “a couple hundred dollars.”
Haller said Sarbanes’ financial lead is “a huge advantage, because his Republican opponent is not starting the campaign with significant public profile. Just to catch up in raw name recognition, he’d (Harris) have to spend $1 million plus.”
But Harris is not deterred. He said he entered politics for the first time because he is frustrated by the Democrats’ views on issues such as universal health care and the energy crisis.
“I’m pulling my hair out watching the liberals tear our nation upside down,” he said. “It’s like sitting on the side watching a possible train wreck and instead of sitting on the side, I decided to jump in and do something about it.”
Harris believes that his background lets him relate to voters much better than Sarbanes.
“Sarbanes is a limousine liberal. He cannot truly relate to the people in terms of experience,” said Harris. “He’s not one of us.”
Sarbanes’ campaign declined to respond to those claims, but Haller described Sarbanes as “a rising star in Congress and in Maryland.”
Sarbanes’ campaign has been able to contribute $36,000 to other campaigns, according to the FEC, including $4,000 to his brother Michael, who ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore City Council president last year.
“He’s got a great political future, he’s young, substantive and well respected,” said Haller.
FEC records from June 30 show that 86 percent, or $790,447, of Sarbanes’ contributions came from individual donors. Lawyers and law firms were the top industry, giving $140,104 to Sarbanes during this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Attorneys from Venable LLP, where Sarbanes worked for 16 years, donated $36,800.
Harris’ records are unavailable because he has not met the $5,000 minimum requirement for filing with the FEC.
“I am by far the poorest candidate in the history of politics in America,” said Harris.
But he hopes to raise money by “knocking on doors,” holding fundraising events and giving speeches. Harris said he and Sarbanes have two debates scheduled, one in Pikesville in September and one in Howard County in October.
A Sarbanes spokeswoman said she did not know that any decisions had been made on the congressman’s participation in debates. But Sarbanes said in a prepared statement that he was focused on listening to constituents and that this fall he would “welcome the opportunity to discuss issues related to the campaign in a public forum.”
In the meantime, Harris says his campaign is “as grassroots as it can get.”
For example, while Sarbanes has an elaborate Web page embedded with YouTube clips, Harris relies on a personal blog to broadcast his message through cyberspace.
“His major problem is he’s invisible, and he doesn’t have the resources at this time to become visible,” Herrnson said of Harris. “Without a strong campaign for resources one cannot run a strong campaign for votes.”
But even if Harris’ bottom-up campaign does not work this time, don’t expect him to stay down for long.
“If I don’t win this time, I do plan to run again and have the whole two years to fundraise,” he said.