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Md. voters will have a wealth of choices on ballot for Senate race

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; B01

Most people are familiar with what it takes to make a real run for president: months of work, hordes of volunteers, and dozens of trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. But what about running for the U.S. Senate from Maryland?

No campaign workers are necessary to get on the primary ballot, and neither are petitions or even yard signs. Just a check for less than $300 -- about what it costs to buy the latest iPhone -- and a desire to be heard.

That low barrier to entry helps explain why 18 candidates are seeking the Republican or Democratic nominations this year, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), who is widely expected to win her fifth term.

"I can't honestly tell you that I expect to win, but I did put my $290 down so I could have my say," said Barry Steve Asbury, one of 11 Republican candidates.

Asbury publishes the small Consumer's News Guide newspaper in northern Baltimore County. The race also includes multiple lawyers, a scrap metal worker, a self-described criminal intelligence analyst who dabbles in motivational speaking (or vice versa), at least two doctors and a behavioral scientist.

Chris Garner, a Severna Park engineer who campaigns in what he calls "Bob the Minivan," said he is running as a Democrat to advance his "disincumbentization program" -- to oust Mikulski and every other legislator from office.

"The reason I'm running is because of the way the Democratic elite have been running this state and a lot of the government. They're running away from their natural constituency, which is the working people of this state," Garner said.

Potomac dentist Neil Cohen, a self-described moderate Republican, suggested that his day job has helped prepare him to be a good Senate candidate.

"The skill that I have is being able to listen to people and solve their problems," he said.

Blaine Taylor, a Democrat and former congressional aide from Towson, said he is running "to give the voters of Maryland an alternative to Senator Mikulski's pro-war votes in the United States Senate."

Taylor was one of 18 Democrats in the 2006 Senate primary, getting 1,848 votes. Ten Republicans also ran for the seat, which was won by Benjamin L. Cardin (D).

Concerning the state requirements, "Maryland's got quite low filing fees compared to other states," said Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News. Only a handful of states have filing fees lower than Maryland's for getting on the primary ballot, he said.

Some states require a lot more cash. Florida's filing fee is $10,440 for party candidates and $6,960 for nonpartisan candidates (despite that, 22 people are running for Florida's open Senate seat). In California, candidates need to come up with $3,480 or 10,000 signatures. And in 2008, Virginia asked Senate candidates for $3,386.

Maryland's fee may be low, but the system isn't perfect, Taylor believes -- because he still had to show up in person in Annapolis. "I don't see why we should physically have to go somewhere to file in these days of computers," he said.

The Senate field has a lot of candidates, but it doesn't appear to have many who can mount a serious challenge to Mikulski, who won with 65 percent of the vote in 2004 and 71 percent in 1998.

Among the Republicans, Eric Wargotz has gotten the most attention, both for being a public official (he's a Queen Anne's County commissioner) and because of his hefty bank account. He has lent his campaign more than $500,000 and had $606,000 in the bank as of June 30.

Of the large field of hopefuls, Wargotz said: "I suspect it has to do with dissatisfaction with Washington and the incumbent. I think people are sensing that there may actually be an opportunity to actually unseat her."

Lawyer Jim Rutledge has received some conservative grass-roots support, and he and Wargotz are the most frequently mentioned potential GOP nominees on blogs and other groups.

Mikulski is running as though she faces heated competition. Her fundraising e-mails have taken note of the candidates running against her, and as of June 30 she had amassed a war chest of nearly $3 million.

"We see it as democracy in action," Mikulski campaign manager Simone Ward said of the large field. "We do believe it's a competitive race. The senator is taking the campaign seriously. . . . We're not taking anything for granted."

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