Hopes Are High, Odds Are Long, for Challengers in Crowded 8th District

By MAGGIE CLARK, Capital News Service

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (August 19, 2010) The congressional challengers in the 8th District are short on money, experience and name recognition and they face a strong incumbent who has more than $3 million on hand for his campaign.

But that hasn't stopped Republican candidates Mike Philips, Bruce Stern, Bill Thomas or Christine Thron.

Or Robert Long, the Democratic challenger.

Or Fred Nordhorn, the Constitution Party candidate.

Or Libertarian hopeful Mark Grannis.

"I'm in this race because I believe we're at an absolutely critical turning point in our history," Grannis said. "But if I thought that collapse were inevitable, I wouldn't do this."

While the hope is high, however, experts say the odds are long.

"You really have to raise about $500,000 to wage a successful House race and some people need even more than that," said Frances Lee, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"You need money to get your message out. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the district, you're not going to talk to them all," Lee said.

But money is in short supply for the challengers looking to unseat 8th District Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat.

The most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission show Van Hollen had more than $3 million in the bank as of June 30. Stern had the next-most money in the bank, at $23,085; Philips had raised $34,115 and had spent all but $1,522 by June 30.

Combined, the challengers have $35,666 in the bank, about 1.2 percent of Van Hollen's cash reserves.

"In a best-case scenario, he'll beat me 10-1 on fundraising," Stern said. "I'm going to go out, knock on doors, canvass neighborhoods in the precinct, and see what people have to say."

The challengers are counting on an anti-incumbent mood to help them offset their fundraising shortfalls. Thomas, one of the GOP candidates, said that this year "the onus is on the incumbent to defend himself."

"This election will not be like a normal election, it could be the perfect storm. I don't think anyone is unbeatable," he said.

But Lee cautions against reading too much into the anti-incumbent rhetoric of this election.

"The re-election rate in Congress is usually about 90 percent, even in swing years like 1994," said Lee. "Most people running for re-election win."

Some challengers argue that Van Hollen's role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee takes him away from the needs of the district.

"Where is Chris Van Hollen?" asked Thomas, who says voters are telling him that Van Hollen has forgotten who pays the bills.

Van Hollen says that people who claim he is absent from the district must not be paying attention.

"Just last night I attended the National Night Out with Montgomery County authorities and I'm fortunate to spend every night in my district," Van Hollen said earlier this month.

"My priority has always been the 8th District and addressing the priorities of the district. I focus on both the DCCC and the 8th District, and there are certainly benefits to my constituents that I'm in leadership positions," Van Hollen said.

The challengers say those "benefits"—in the form of federal spending—are part of the problem. Worry over the pace of federal spending is why Christine Thron, despite the long odds, is moving ahead with her campaign, with her ears to the public and her eyes on her spending account.

"It's difficult, but this is going to be practice for Congress," Thron said of her budget-conscious campaign. "We're all getting by on less these days."

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