By CHRISTOPHER WEAVER
WASHINGTON (Oct. 5, 2008)—Maryland congressional campaigns refocused this week on the stalled economy and the unpopular bailout bill that ricocheted through Congress before passing Friday.
"They're bailing out the wrong people," said Creston Long, a history professor at Salisbury University, describing the prevailing sentiment of voters in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, home to the state's most competitive race.
The crisis has energized candidates challenging "safe" incumbents, and in more competitive races, nominees are linking their positions on issues such as environment and tax policy to a larger theme of economic stability.
Frank Kratovil, the Democratic candidate in the 1st District, honed his message that economic sustainability depends on the health of the Chesapeake Bay in a debate Tuesday.
State Sen. Andy Harris opposed the bailout—a stand his campaign manager reaffirmed Friday—and offered policy fixes tailored to the concerns of his decidedly off-Wall Street constituents, like expanding deposit insurance for bank accounts.
"I think the fundamentals remain the same," said Chris Meekins, the Harris campaign manager. Harris' platforms won't change, he said, even as the campaign underscores that those policies, which include fewer taxes and spending, could help revive the economy.
"The economy is not a talking point," said Kratovil spokesman Kevin Lawlor. "It's a reality at this moment. But . . . it gives people a window to look through," and connect with a candidate's message. Kratovil has raised concerns about the economy for months, and supports tighter regulation and oversight.
Both candidates distanced themselves from party leaders. Both the Democratic Congress and the Bush administration have low approval ratings.
The Kratovil campaign called for a bipartisan solution to the financial crisis all week, emphasizing a desire to work with members of both parties, while Harris touted a voting record of opposing both Democrats and Republicans in Annapolis.
"I'm the one who has challenged party leadership," he said, noting that he took on incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who President Bush endorsed in the Republican primary.
"Many (Republicans), if you look, are really trying to distance themselves from the president." said Michael Cain, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's University. "That's really a national strategy."
The economic wisdom is that the current situation "is going to exacerbate Republican difficulties throughout the country," said Eric Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
Republicans running against well-entrenched Democratic incumbents in central Maryland are hoping to turn the tables, portraying Democrats like Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, who voted for the bailout twice, and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, who only supported the economic fix the second time around, as out of touch with ordinary voters' money problems.
"They actually listened to the people again," said Steve Hudson, the Republican Silver Spring ophthalmologist who opposes Van Hollen in the 8th District. He applauded Congress for rejecting Monday's version of the bailout. "The central question is whether we should be injecting this money into the financial system."
Early Friday afternoon, Congress passed a version of the bailout bill, giving the Treasury secretary $700 billion to stabilize shaky banks and assets. President Bush signed it quickly. Though the new bill included concessions to both parties, it remains unpopular, even among its supporters.
Peter James, Edwards' Republican challenger in the heavily Democratic 4th District, said he's been giving an interview a day since the crisis exploded, far more than earlier in the campaign.
James, a former Silicon Valley finance consultant, has based his campaign on the economic anxiety of voters from the beginning.
"I was trying to scare them, but only out of reality," James said. "If a big truck is coming down the street and it's going to whack them, you don't want to calmly say, 'Hey, you should get out of the road.'"
Pundits have called the controversial bailout a "legacy vote" that will haunt or boost congressmen in future elections even if few challengers benefit this time around. But the average voter's memory isn't that long, said Uslaner.
"If the economy is in better shape in two years, then people won't pay attention to it," he said. "If the economy's in worse shape, they'll worry about what caused the immediate shape of the economy."
Jennifer Dougherty, D-Frederick, the Democratic nominee in the 6th District, is looking for a more immediate boost in her challenge to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick.
Bartlett introduced an alternative to the bailout Monday, and although some ideas from his bill were incorporated into Friday's version, he voted against it again. Dougherty also opposed the bailout, but said her opponent's past support for deregulation is one cause of the crisis, and will push more voters into her camp.
"What we're watching is a scary freak show of economic incompetence," Dougherty said. "It doesn't really affect George Bush or Henry Paulson, it affects the middle-class wage earner who's worked hard and just tried to play by the rules."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.