Maryland state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola, once the de facto frontrunner to become the Old Line State’s newest Member of Congress, finds himself in a serious dogfight just less than a week before the Democratic primary.
Although no internal polling has been made public, millionaire banker John Delaney is widely viewed as having late momentum in the race, which will decide who faces vulnerable Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) in November.
The contentious primary has split Maryland Democratic operatives, activists, local politicians and even the Congressional delegation. Garagiola has the support of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, organized labor, state lawmakers and progressive groups. In Delaney’s corner are President Bill Clinton, Rep. Donna Edwards and the region’s most powerful newspaper editorial board — not to mention the candidate’s willingness to spend $1.56 million from his own pocket.
Delaney, who also raised more than $700,000 from individuals, has spent freely on TV ads while the Garagiola campaign made a strategic decision not to engage in an ad war — and not to engage on TV at all.
“We expected that Delaney would tap his vast fortune, and we would never squander our resources on TV against that kind of opponent who could outspend us,” Garagiola campaign manager Sean Rankin explained. He said from the beginning the plan was to target voters through direct mail and phones and in the field.
It may ultimately be a call the campaign regrets if Garagiola loses on Tuesday.
One unaligned state Democratic strategist called Garagiola’s decision not to engage on TV “a well-executed, flawed strategy” that is “designed to fail.”
Other critics were even more blunt.
“To be a sitting [state] Senator and to be running for a couple of years and to not be able to put yourself on TV is embarrassing,” said another Democrat not involved in the race.
Garagiola virtually cleared the 6th district primary field after the state Legislature passed a new map last fall with a district tailored for the young state Senator and drawn to take out Bartlett.
But there is growing consensus in both parties that Delaney may prove to be the stronger general election nominee.
Garagiola has personal and voting record baggage from his time in Annapolis that will be ripe for Republican attacks in the fall campaign. Delaney, who has never held public office but has a powerful Rolodex that has aided his fundraising, is more of a blank slate.
Most observers saw the race change with what one Democratic strategist called a “one-two punch” — a reference to Delaney’s support from Clinton and the Washington Post editorial board. Delaney was a top bundler for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.
Garagiola’s campaign said its superior political organization will trump Delaney’s self-funding next week.
“In a low-turnout primary that might be enough to counteract Delaney trying to buy the race,” said Daniel Mintz, MoveOn.org’s national director of coordinated campaigns. “Anytime you’ve got one candidate pouring more than a million dollars into a campaign, that’s going to make it hard on everyone else.”
Rankin, Garagiola’s campaign manager, said he expects fewer than 45,000 people to vote in the primary and that the campaign is betting its get-out-the-vote infrastructure will pull through.
“Whoever runs a more effective field operation has the best chance to win what will be an incredibly tight race,” he said.
“Institutional forces in Maryland will have an impact on Election Day,” an unaligned Maryland Democratic strategist added, acknowledging that Garagiola has the edge on that front. “They have tested turnout operations and can help their candidate, but the question is: Will that be enough?”
Garagiola’s GOTV effort will no doubt be helped by his support from organized labor groups, Hoyer and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D). The two lawmakers backed Garagiola early and helped cement the state Senator’s status as the establishment candidate.
Edwards’ endorsement of Delaney last week was much more controversial, with one Democratic operative describing it as “an obvious shot” at Hoyer.
The AFL-CIO, which has ardently supported Edwards and now backs Garagiola, issued a memo highly critical of the Congresswoman’s decision, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The irony of how the primary has unfolded is not lost on the Maryland political operatives who have been watching it closely. In many ways the map that was designed to boost Garagiola has worked against him because it fed the perception that he was being anointed by kingmakers in Annapolis.
“You can’t pick winners in this business,” an unaligned Maryland Democratic insider said. “You’ve got to win it for yourself.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.