By JON AERTS
WASHINGTON (October 22, 2010)A bumper sticker on Eric Wargotz's dark-green, Dodge Ram, campaign truck reads: "I'll keep my money, my guns, my faith and my freedom and you can keep the 'change.'"
And yet change is precisely what Wargotz needs and wants in his underdog bid to unseat Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who has never won a general election with less than 61 percent of the vote since she secured the Senate seat in 1986.
Part of Mikulski's success reflects the political makeup of Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, and where an October Gonzales Research poll offers little hope—and even less change—to Wargotz. He trails Mikulski in that poll by 17 points, while a recent Rasmussen Reports survey put the gap at 16 points.
Little known but for a few radio spots, some billboards and one television ad likening Mikulski to an entrenched Capitol Hill "dinosaur," Wargotz holds no illusions over the need to keep spreading his name.
"As long as you spell my name right, I don't care," he recently said, sitting in a clubhouse located on Matapeake State Park in Stevensville. From here, the view includes the Bay Bridge and a small public beach that Wargotz, a physician and married father of three, helped establish as a Queen Anne's County Commissioner.
Wargotz hopes to make a splash in deep blue Maryland by focusing largely on Mikulski, whose 34-year tenure in Congress, Wargotz said, is exactly the problem.
"How can you expect someone who's been living that kind of lifestyle and serving for that many years on Capitol Hill to really understand the plight of the hard workin' folks in the community?" he asked. "They don't have to run businesses. They don't have employees. They don't have to make payroll," he said. "They're just out of touch."
For all his posturing, Wargotz, 53, strikes a fairly friendly impression in his khaki slacks, blue shirt and tie. Born in Akron, Ohio, Wargotz grew up in Middletown, N.J., where he said he started providing for himself at age 9.
"I grew up with a very solid work ethic," he said. "I've stocked shelves, cleaned toilets, worked at restaurants, carpentry, plumbing, electric work—you name it."
Wargotz earned his bachelor's degree in biological sciences at Rutgers University and a doctorate in pathology at Ohio State University's College of Medicine. He was chief resident at the VA Medical Center in Washington before making Queenstown his permanent residence in the early 1990s. A specialist in breast and gynecological pathology, Wargotz also served 17 years as a medical lab director and chief of pathology at the Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham, where he now runs a private pathology practice.
"Unlike most politicians, doctors are trained to listen," Wargotz said, calling Mikulski's first television ad about bringing "new economy" jobs to Maryland evidence of the senator's disconnect with voters.
"You know, it's like rainbows and unicorns," said Wargotz, referring to Labor Department statistics showing Maryland among only two states to see a significant rise in unemployment in August. "This is Maryland: Unemployment is (over 7) percent," he said, adding that a BP solar-panel manufacturing plant in Frederick closed earlier this year. "I mean, where is she living?"
Mikulski is firmly rooted in Maryland, said spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight, who said unemployment figures need to be looked at over time, rather than on any given month to provide context. She also said the August figures fail to express the emergence of 33,200 jobs in Maryland between January and July.
"And if you look, we're below the national (unemployment rate) average," she said.
Wargotz continues to gird for battle. He expanded his campaign team after besting 10 rivals in the September primary, naming Bo Harmon campaign director, among others. Harmon is known nationally for helping Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss dethrone Democrat Max Cleland of Georgia in 2002.
The motivation is strong: He says he couldn't resist running against Mikulski, despite the odds, because she's marched in lockstep with President Obama on the $787 billion stimulus package and health care reform bill.
"There is a rationing that is going to go on as we reach certain milestones of this health care mandate," he said, listing interstate competition, portable health care plans, tort reform and medical savings accounts as legitimate upgrades to the mandate. "What's good for medicine and good for people is good for business and job creation."
Wargotz also said he supports prudent spending, more tax relief and a smaller federal government, much like President Reagan.
"I thought he had a very incisive way of looking at things," he said. "And of taking things very seriously but being calm, cool and collected with common sense approaches."
Wargotz said he also admires Republican Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., both of whom are doctors.
"Those gentlemen, they stand for something," he said, adding: "They would have an ally to a great extent on the floor."
But it's a long way from GOP challenger to the Senate floor.
Wargotz lags significantly in the money race.
As of Sept. 20, Mikulski spent nearly $3.5 million on her campaign, with nearly $2 million still in the bank. According to OpenSecrets.org, Wargotz has spent $230,000 of his $773,000 war chest, $575,000 of which came out of his own pocket, as of Aug. 25.
And the primary election results were telling of the candidates' strengths. In fact, only two of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions turned out more voters for Wargotz than Mikulski. Put another way: Had all 235,092 votes cast for other Senate candidates gone to Wargotz, he'd still be down 67,670 votes to the 396,252 cast for Mikulski, according to Maryland Election Board figures.
"I just don't see how this guy wins," said Josh Kurtz, a political columnist for Center Maryland. Despite "a terrible year for Democrats," Kurtz said Mikulski remains popular, and summed up Wargotz's chances as, "None."
According to the Rasmussen poll, 30 percent of Maryland voters didn't know enough about Wargotz to offer "even a soft" opinion of him. Meanwhile, of the 98 percent of Marylanders who had an opinion of Mikulski, 57 percent viewed her favorably.
Wargotz remains confident.
"I don't want to sound cocky, but it's all about turnout on Election Day," he said. "And we feel confident that the tide has turned, as with the rest of the country."