The wild card is Rob Sobhani, a former Georgetown University lecturer and international businessman. Polls suggest that he likely will take a sizable split of the anti-Cardin vote from former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, the Republican Party’s nominee.
“You can compare him to Ross Perot — another wealthy businessman running in a time of economic trouble and criticizing the major parties,” said David Karol, associate professor of government at the University of Maryland.
In the new Post poll, Cardin (D) wins 53 percent among likely voters. Bongino wins 22 percent, while Sobhani — who entered the race in September — has 14 percent. (Libertarian Party candidate Dean Ahmad receives about 2 percent.)
Sobhani, who is running an almost entirely self-financed campaign, has spent more than $4.6 million, more than half of which has been put to work in ads. Suddenly, people on the street recognize him and his slogan.
“I really liked the ‘Declare your independence,’ ” said a woman who stopped him on the sidewalk during a campaign visit to downtown Frederick this month.
“I see him on the TV all the time,” said William Sears, 38, a graphic designer who watched the encounter from a few feet away. “He seems like a pretty well-grounded guy.”
Sears said that, as a Democrat, he would probably go for Cardin. But Sears said he would give some thought to voting for a nontraditional candidate like Sobhani, something a small but growing minority of Marylanders are doing.
Although Maryland is one of the bluest states, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by more than 2 to 1, third-party and unaffiliated voters have been increasing. In 2000, they were a little more than 13 percent of registered voters, Maryland State Board of Elections data show. By 2004, the number was at 15 percent. Today they account for about 18 percent.
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science, said Sobhani’s relatively strong showing in the polls reflects disenchantment with the two major parties, especially the GOP.
Sobhani, 52, who was born in Kansas to Iranian immigrants, has shown a knack for making the most of his last-minute arrival on the scene. In 1990, when he was 30, Sobhani helped broker a huge international petroleum deal, as if by accident, between Amoco and Azerbaijan.
While teaching in Azerbaijan, Sobhani was invited for a private meeting with its newly installed president as the small Caucasus country was on the verge of inking a deal with British Petroleum for drilling rights to its abundant oil fields. Sobhani, who spoke Azeri, told the Azerbaijanis to think twice about the BP deal. Instead, as related by journalist Steve LeVine in his book, “The Oil and The Glory,” Sobhani urged Azerbaijan to consider a U.S. company with the full backing of a superpower.