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Md.’s Sarbanes faces challengers focused on spending, government regulations

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In Maryland, the campaigns for three of the state’s high-profile ballot measures — expanded gambling, same-sex marriage and the Dream Act — are fierce. The race for the state’s 3rd Congressional District seat is not.

For about six years, Rep. John Sarbanes (D) has represented the district, which currently includes pockets of Baltimore as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties. Democrats have claimed the seat since the 1920s, and political experts say they expect Sarbanes to win another two-year term over Republican Eric Knowles and Paul Drgos Jr. of the Libertarian Party.

Sarbanes “pays attention to his constituents, he’s in line with what their thoughts are and he represents the district well,” said Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. “I would be shocked if he did not win this race.”

What has seemed to draw more attention from voters is the shape of the district itself. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and other Democrats recently redrew the state’s eight districts for the next 10 years. But a Nov. 6 referendum has challenged the new map. And the oddly shaped 3rd District has become fodder for critics of redistricting: One local official has described it as “blood splatter.”

The 3rd District snakes from Owings Mills to Towson, through Baltimore and Brookeville, before hitting Annapolis and Highland Beach. A nonpartisan geospatial analysis firm in Philadelphia recently released a gerrymandering study that said the district is the third least compact in the nation.

In the past, Sarbanes has beaten the Republican candidate by about 2 to 1. The incumbent is the son of the longest-serving U.S. senator in Maryland history, Paul Sarbanes. A key supporter of education policy, John Sarbanes authored legislation during the first months of his first term to forgive student loans for those who work in public service for 10 years.

But lately, he’s been focusing on the major issues faced in the presidential elections: the economy, the national deficit and the federal health-care law.

“I am focused on making sure that building the American dream, rebuilding the American dream, is the center of our focus,” he said during a debate in Anne Arundel County Community College this week. “I think the best way we do that is to continue to invest in transportation in our country.”

His challengers are more conservative than he is, saying a new congressman is needed to curb government spending and end gridlock.

Knowles, a bartender, is a U.S. Air Force veteran. In 2010, he ran against O’Malley as the Constitution Party candidate for governor. Knowles won his primary this year over three others, including a retired teacher and the 2008 Republican nominee.

In campaign materials and on his Web site, he said the Constitution is under attack by such legislation as the recent defense budget, which has been criticized for allowing the indefinite detainment of U.S. citizens. He also has said the Federal Reserve prints too much money, calling it the “biggest drain” on the national economy. “I’m just a normal guy, I work 9 to 5, and all I want to do is save my country,” Knowles said in a campaign video.

Drgos, a computer programmer, has said he believes Congress has become corrupt and needs new members who would scale back regulations on individuals and private businesses. He also said there needs to be more than two parties in Congress.

“I decided to run because I didn’t like where the government was going, and I felt that I could make a difference,” Drgos said at the debate.

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