In the last few weeks, financier John Delaney has turned expectations for the Democratic primary in Maryland's 6th District upside-down. State Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola was the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination since Maryland completed redistricting last year, when the process stretched GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's seat down into Garagiola's suburban D.C. legislative district. But Delaney's strong campaign, bolstered by over $1.3 million of his own money, appears to have put him in charge of his own destiny heading into the primary. Garagiola could still win, but Delaney has given us plenty of reasons to doubt the state legislator's chances.
Last week, Delaney's campaign released two internal polls showing him with a commanding lead, having broken open the race after major endorsements from Bill Clinton and the Washington Post and weeks of saturation advertising on TV and radio. The positive spots have played up Delaney's business and outsider credentials, highlighting his influential supporters, while others have hit Garagiola's past work as a lobbyist and tagged him as a career politician.
Delaney's polls were conducted in two consecutive March weeks and showed Delaney up 49-23 percent and 41-24 percent respectively, over Garagiola. Delaney's campaign manager, Justin Schall, said the campaign was wary about releasing the first poll, but having the first result confirmed by the second bolstered their confidence.
"I think you've seen the momentum shift the past three-to-four weeks, as people started paying attention," Schall said. "People tuned in, heard about the people supporting John, and heard about John's message."
Still, congressional primaries are notoriously difficult to predict. We only have to go as far back as the last state's primary, in Illinois, to see a candidate (Brad Schneider, in the state's 10th District) confound pre-primary polling.
Back in Maryland, Garagiola's campaign might be well-suited to pull off a sneaky primary upset. He has spent no money on radio or TV advertising; instead, Garagiola and his outside allies have focused exclusively on selling his progressive legislative record (and calling out Delaney for a donation to GOP Rep. Andy Harris
in 2010) via direct mail and contact with voters. It's an unusual, risky move, but it has the benefit of using Garagiola's dollars only to reach likely Democratic primary voters, not the universe of area residents - some of whom live outside the district, many of whom aren't Democrats - listening to radio and watching TV. "It's a huge expenditure with very little bang for the buck," Garagiola said of Delaney's advertising, which has partially fueled his rise to frontrunner status. "We're focused a little smaller," on likely voters and Garagiola partisans.
Plus, Garagiola has done this successfully before. He spent almost nothing on media advertising in his first state Senate challenge in 2002, and he eked out an 800-vote margin of victory, out of 40,000 votes cast, over an incumbent.
Incidentally, 40,000 is about the same number of votes Garagiola expects to be cast in his the primary this Tuesday, though congressional primaries are larger-scale than state legislative races. But Democratic primary turnout across the country is already unpredictable without a presidential primary to draw voters, and pre-Easter vacations add another x-factor to the race. Delaney's name identification is now higher than Garagiola's, likely due to all those radio and TV ads, but Garagiola's tested boots-on-the-ground strategy could drive more of his supporters to the polls.
Of course, the fact that Delaney has spent a ton of money on advertising doesn't mean he has left other elements of the campaign to wither on the vine. In an interview last week, Schall said Delaney's campaign has made over 200,000 phone calls and made over 100,000 door knocks in speaking to around 40,000 to 50,000 voters. The campaign has also made a major push to secure early voters, whose activity appears to be up this year. It's one of the reasons why Delaney's camp released their polling data; they are confident their field campaign will turn out their voters on primary day.
"We have a very large field program, and we're confident we'll have boots on the streets and fingers on the dial to counter any laziness" from supporters after Delaney's positive poll release, Schall said.
Delaney's surge has given him the upper hand, but a tight race or even a Garagiola win is not out of the question. As the media has approvingly watched Delaney dominate the airwaves, there is a chance that the Garagiola's campaign is not dead, but just resting, like the Norwegian blue parrot from the famous "Monty Python's Flying Circus" sketch
Of course, the parrot really was dead. Perhaps a more fitting cultural reference could be to Dr. Strangelove, and in Maryland's 6th District we can learn to stop worrying and love pre-primary polling.
Maryland's 6th District Democratic race looks like the only consequential primary in the state. The GOP challenge to Bartlett has fizzled: His strongest challenger would likely have been state GOP Chair Alex Mooney
, who was gearing up for a run but decided against it, and the anti-Bartlett vote is going to be divided in a large field. If Bartlett wins, he'll have the opportunity to run in a much more Democratic-leaning district than before: The old 6th was a 41 percent Obama district while the new district is about a 57 percent Obama district.
In the 4th District, Rep. Donna Edwards
's potential strong challenger (Glenn Ivey
) dropped out before the filing deadline, citing fundraising difficulties. Edwards helped push him out by circling the wagons quickly at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. Interestingly, she may have made herself less safe for 2014 in the process of coasting through this primary; she endorsed Delaney over Garagiola, sparking an angry rebuke from the Maryland AFL-CIO, which said they could reconsider support for her in the future.