WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party has a new challenger to Rep. Andy Harris in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District, after voter fraud allegations ended the previous candidate’s bid, but the odds of his beating the incumbent are slim.
The party had scrambled for a replacement since its primary winner Wendy Rosen had to drop out of the race on Sept. 10, after confirming reports that she had voted in two different states in more than one election.
Now, after a week-long search, the party has thrown its support behind John LaFerla, the 63-year-old gynecologist from Chestertown, who had lost in the primary to Rosen by just 57 votes.
In addition, LaFerla has won the backing of the former Republican congressman from the district, Wayne Gilchrest, who lost to Harris in the 2008 primary election.
But because LaFerla is late entering the campaign he will have to run as a write-in candidate, a distinct disadvantage.
“We’ve talked to the State Board of Elections, and unfortunately we’re past the date, which leaves us with no legal means to add someone to the ballot,” said Matthew Verghese, the Maryland Democratic Party political and communications director. “The party understands the reality of waging a write-in campaign.”
LaFerla, however, is up for the challenge, said his campaign chief.
“Obviously, John is ready to go,” said LaFerla Campaign Manager Erik Gulbrandsen. “He had been thinking about a run in 2014, depending on the outcome of this election, so for us it’s just a matter of turning back on the lights.”
That campaign readiness, plus his demonstrated popularity among primary voters, made LaFerla a good substitute for Rosen from a party perspective.
“John has not only the confidence, but the grassroots activists to hit the ground running,” said Verghese. “He is articulate, in his heart he understands what he’s fighting for. He’s trying to build a better tomorrow.”
However, it may not be enough. According to Saint Mary’s College of Maryland Assistant Professor of Political Science Todd Eberly, a write-in campaign in District 1 is particularly problematic because the usually Republican district was made more so after redistricting this year.
“It’s unlikely. The only time a candidate will win a write-in campaign this important is if there is a closely fought primary, and the losing candidate had substantial support,” said Eberly. “This is what happened in Alaska in 2010 when Senator Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary but ran a successful write-in campaign in the general election.”
Murkowski’s 2010 victory over Tea Party favorite Joe Miller was only the second time that a write-in candidate had won a senatorial election; the other time was Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., in 1954. Thurmond switched party affiliation 10 years later.
“Write-in campaigns can succeed as well in states or districts where one party dominates and the party’s nominee dies or suddenly withdraws.”
Fortunately for Harris, none of these conditions are much of a factor.
“Andy Harris will continue to work hard throughout the district offering solutions to restore our economy and our nation,” said Harris’ campaign manager Kathy Szeliga in a press statement.
Another write-in candidate has also emerged in the race — Douglas Rae, owner and head baker of the Evergrain Bread Co. in Chestertown.
“I became interested in running when Wendy Rosen withdrew, which left the field right open for someone my age, 24, to get more involved, and to inspire others my age to get involved. I think people have become disconnected with the democratic process, and I’m trying to show them, through running, that you can make a difference,” Rae said.
He said he’ll use news coverage and social media — he announced his candidacy on Facebook — to try to keep the cost of campaigning to his budget of $200.
“From what I understand, it costs $5 million to get a congressman elected, which I think is a waste — there are so many more useful ways that money could be spent.”
There had been some speculation that former congressman Gilchrest was considering running, but it is something that he says he was never seriously considering.
“It wasn’t the (write-in) campaign that dissuaded me,” said Gilchrest, a program director at the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. “It was the fundamental dysfunction of the way Congress is. I am much more productive doing what I am doing now.”
Instead, Gilchrest said he is supporting LaFerla, rather than fellow Republican Harris.
Rosen withdrew from the race, with a strong push from the Democratic Party, once news broke that she had voted in Florida and Maryland in more than one election.
“Today, the Maryland Democratic Party took immediate and decisive action and demanded the withdrawal of Wendy Rosen … after allegations of electoral law violations were brought to our attention,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis in a news release.
“Any effort to corrupt or misuse the electoral process is reprehensible, wrong and must not be tolerated.”