By Rosalind S. Helderman, William Wan and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Two long-serving members of the House of Representatives from Maryland were ousted in primaries Tuesday, as voters seeking change united with ideological activists in both parties who wanted to punish congressmen thought to have strayed from party principles.
In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, lawyer Donna F. Edwards soundly defeated eight-term Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D) after accusing him of being too moderate for his liberal constituents on issues including the economy and the Iraq war. Edwards will face Republican Peter James in November in the heavily Democratic district.
In an Eastern Shore-based district, nine-term Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R) was ousted by State Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County), who waged a campaign from the right that targeted Gilchrest's positions on the Iraq war and immigration. Harris will run against Queen Anne's State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D).
The defeat of an incumbent in a primary is a rarity, but two in one state is almost unheard of. In Maryland, no congressional incumbent had lost a party primary since 1992; it had been 28 years since two fell on one day.
"When voters were going into the booth, they were voting for change," said Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, citing enormous enthusiasm for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). "But it's interesting -- the politics of polarization that the Obama campaign is concerned about played out in Maryland last night."
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill took it as a sign that the election season could be bad for incumbents of all stripes.
For Republicans, the Gilchrest defeat raised a dilemma: They might feel the need to distance themselves from President Bush and the Iraq war, both of which are broadly unpopular, but if they go too far, they risk incurring the wrath of the GOP's base.
Gilchrest's compatriot in the party's small antiwar wing, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), faces similar peril May 6, when the Tar Heel state holds its primaries.
Maryland Democrats said they think Gilchrest's defeat by the conservative Harris in the 1st District creates an opportunity to pick up a seat in Congress in November.
Wynn was routed in the Montgomery County section of the 4th Congressional District, where Edwards had won a previous matchup between the two in 2006. But it was Edwards's commanding victory in Wynn's home base of Prince George's County that forced the 15-year incumbent, a fixture of county politics, out of office.
Supporters of both candidates said yesterday that they were stunned by the margin in that race. Some attributed Edwards's winning margin of almost 14 percentage points in Prince George's in part to an extraordinary turnout for Obama among voters eager for a change in political leadership.
The millions spent by national liberal organizations to help Edwards in what they regard as a bellwether race were also a factor, observers said, as was dissatisfaction with Wynn's constituent services and anxiety over the declining economy.
"Voters spoke loudly and clearly, not just for a little bit of change, but a real transformation in the lives of working people," Edwards said in an interview yesterday.
Edwards said she expects to "be out in our community" during the campaign against James, a high-tech consultant and Ron Paul supporter from Germantown, and she plans to work with Wynn on a seamless transition. "We'll be ready to hit the ground running in January 2009," she said.
Progressive groups that spent more than $1.5 million on independent efforts to oust Wynn took credit for the victory yesterday. They indicated that their successful cooperative effort to defeat a powerful incumbent will provide a template for holding Democrats accountable in future races -- particularly those who, like Wynn, have accepted substantial corporate contributions.
The groups and Edwards said that Wynn's votes to authorize the use of force in Iraq and for the Bush-backed energy and bankruptcy reform bills were out of line with opinion in his overwhelmingly Democratic district.
"This is a breakthrough," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the antiwar group Moveon.org, which spent $150,000 on efforts targeting Wynn. "It offers the emergence of a progressive accountability coalition that, moving forward, will ensure Democrats are in line with their voters and their party."
The group sent a fundraising e-mail to members yesterday, with the subject line: "Donna Edwards beats Al Wynn: who's next?"
Three hundred volunteers from the Service Employees International Union worked polls and knocked on doors on Election Day for Edwards, and the labor group spent $800,000 on TV ads, mail and other efforts to get her message out, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger said.
Gilchrest had faced a similarly aggressive effort by national groups, particularly the antitax group Club for Growth. Experts said his defeat further thinned the ranks of moderate Republicans in Congress and put those who remain on notice from conservative groups, said Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
"Gilchrest has long been in trouble," Mann said.
Gilchrest was one of two Republicans to vote last year for a timeline on withdrawing from Iraq. He also voted with Democrats trying to override a veto of a health-care program for poor children, and he was attacked for what critics said was his soft position on illegal immigrants working in agriculture.
Harris said the 44 percent he received in a multiple-candidate primary against an incumbent sent a strong message.
"That's a pretty resounding endorsement of our message in the primary. The message is: A fiscally conservative Republican is the best choice for that district."
Gilchrest, speaking yesterday from his home in Kennedyville, attributed his loss to a string of negative attack ads by Harris and another challenger, State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (Queen Anne's). "It was the ugly side of politics," he said. "They were all distortions of my record. It was not only an insult to voters to run a campaign like that, but destructive and divisive -- just feeding into a culture of hate and fear."
Wynn had tried to portray Edwards as a puppet of the liberal groups backing her effort, urging voters to reject the advice of Edwards's supporters he recently termed "hired guns."
He endorsed Obama before she did and said he would better represent the kind of pragmatic coalition-building that Obama espouses. Wynn worked to convince voters that he had delivered for his district and that they would benefit from his seniority in a Democrat-controlled Congress.
But Obama convinced voters they should look to the future and not be impressed with long records of public service, said State Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), who was supporting Obama and Wynn.
Wynn has "been an epicenter of Prince George's political power for the last 15 to 20 years," Currie said. "Obama, his campaign was based on change, on going forward as opposed to looking back. . . . [Wynn] probably got caught up in all that."
Wynn did not return requests for comment yesterday. In a statement on his campaign Web site, he said he looked forward to serving out the remainder of his term, which will end in January. "I am proud of the positive, issues based campaign that we ran powered by people and community leaders from this district," he wrote.
Wynn strategist Julius Henson said he thought that the campaign failed to put Edwards on the defensive, even as she and her supporters ran ads pounding Wynn's record.
He said Wynn's campaign had calculated that he needed to capture 54 percent of Prince George's votes to win. Henson said he knew the race was lost when results showed Wynn losing there instead.
"That," he said, "was the ballgame."
Staff writers Ann E. Marimow, John Wagner and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.