Taking His Case to Primary Voters

Prosecutor May Challenge Rep. Bartlett for GOP Nod in Maryland 6th

Posted September 3, 2003 at 6:25pm

Despite warnings from the Maryland GOP chairman and lieutenants of Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), a popular local prosecutor is contemplating challenging Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) in a 2004 Republican primary.

Frederick County States Attorney Scott Rolle (R) has held several planning meetings with friends and advisers and plans to conduct a poll before making a final decision in October.

“Something in my gut tells me that this is the right time to look at it,” Rolle said in an interview. “Whether I run is another thing.”

While Rolle is one of a half-dozen ambitious Western Maryland Republicans whose names are routinely mentioned as possible successors to Bartlett, his decision to explore an intraparty challenge to the six-term Congressman has stunned Free State Republicans and set off a flurry of activity.

Party leaders have told Rolle that Ehrlich, a former House Member, will back his ex-colleague if there is a primary in the heavily Republican 6th district.

But Rolle, who is close to Ehrlich and most of the state’s GOP establishment, was undeterred.

“I understand the position they’re in,” he said. “I don’t expect them to endorse me.”

Although they’re both rock-ribbed conservatives, a race between Bartlett and Rolle would be a study in contrasts. Bartlett is a 77-year-old scientist, inventor and farmer, and one of the most unconventional Members of the House. Rolle is a 42-year-old lawyer who looks like a standard, well-tailored politician.

David Albert, a Republican strategist and lobbyist who managed Ellen Sauerbrey’s (R) unsuccessful campaign for governor in Maryland in 1998 and is informally advising Rolle, said a primary between the prosecutor and the Congressman would be cast as a contest between old and new.

“I think Scott Rolle is the future of the Republican Party in Maryland and it’s now just time to pass the baton,” he said.

Albert added that while state party leaders would be expected to rally around the incumbent, they may be making a mistake by discouraging Rolle.

“If you look past Bob [Ehrlich], where’s the farm team?” Albert said. “The true test of leadership is your recruiting drive.”

One operative who is close to a powerful Maryland Republican but did not want to be identified said GOP leaders have told Rolle that the 2006 nomination for state attorney general is his for the asking and that he could be considered for other important posts in the not too distant future if he stays put.

But Rolle said that while the idea of being attorney general is “appealing,” he is not convinced he can win a statewide race in Maryland, which remains a Democratic stronghold despite Ehrlich’s victory last year. Running for Congress, he said, “makes the most sense as I look at the map.”

The Republican operative said party leaders fear that if Rolle challenges Bartlett, other candidates could jump into the primary, splitting the GOP and paving the way for a Democratic upset in the general election despite the Republican advantage in the mostly rural and exurban 6th.

But a multicandidate field may not materialize. Most of the potential GOP contenders for Bartlett’s seat serve in the state Legislature, and the 2004 primary will be in March, right in the middle of the annual legislative session, making it difficult for them to focus on campaigning.

Lisa Lyons Wright, a spokeswoman for Bartlett, said she had “no knowledge about [what Rolle is doing] and no comment about it.”

While Bartlett has said that he plans to serve in the House indefinitely, it is widely assumed that he would like to maximize the chances of his son, state Del. Joseph Bartlett (R), to succeed him.

In a survey of state House insiders conducted by The Gazette newspaper in 2002, Joseph Bartlett was rated the least effective member of the House of Delegates, by a wide margin.

Wright would not comment about the succession scenario and said her boss has made his intentions clear by already formally declaring his candidacy for 2004.

“I never speculate about such matters,” she said. “Others are certainly free to do so.”

Some Maryland political observers believe that the prospect of a Bartlett dynasty is motivating Rolle to mobilize now; even if he loses a primary challenge to Congressman Bartlett this time, he could then find himself at the head of the Republican line when Bartlett retires.

Rolle may also be trying to forestall the expected candidacy — whenever Bartlett steps aside — of state Sen. Alex Mooney (R), who has raised record amounts of cash for his legislative races with his dramatic direct-mail appeals to hard-line conservatives around the state and nation. Mooney also has a wealth of contacts in national conservative organizations.

“If you think Roscoe is not going to run in the near future, why not make a nice primary run now?” said Donald Murphy, Republican chairman in Baltimore County, which takes in a slice of the 6th district.

But Rolle said he has no long-term strategy, and if he runs for the seat in 2004 he would be in the race to win. He said that even though he’s embarrassed that word of his deliberations have leaked out, he’s encouraged by what he’s heard.

“The response so far,” he said, “has been great.”