Many Have Failed To Unseat Morella
By Karl Vick
You can try frosting her, the strategy Peter Franchot employed two years later.
And if you are James Walker Jr., you might even try outsmarting Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).
But so far, what no Democrat from Montgomery County has even come close to doing is actually defeating Morella, now an incumbent of 10 years' standing.
Does the same fate await current challenger Donald L. Mooers?
Not necessarily, chorus the men who once harbored hopes of defeating Morella, only to see her run up vote totals that in each of the last three elections reached or exceeded 70 percent.
This year, the vanquished say, it might be different.
Morella, 65, may have lost none of her personal charisma. "I always liked her," Bainum said.
And she retains the fund-raising edge that comes with incumbency. At last count, her half-million-dollar treasury was more than triple Mooers's.
But she has lost a crucial foil. No longer is Morella a liberal Republican in a Congress controlled by Democrats, with the attendant opportunities to display the principled independence that Montgomery voters adore.
For the first time in her career, her former opponents say, Morella can be held accountable for the actions of her party.
"I hear complaints everywhere I go about the Republican-led Congress," said Edward J. Heffernan, whom Morella trounced in 1992. "And on Nov. 5, the voters of Montgomery County have a chance to do something about it. They need to look beyond their fondness for Mrs. Morella to what she's a part of."
Morella parries that attack by asserting that she's still independent -- only now her independence is from the Republican leadership instead of the Democrats. Last year, according to Congressional Quarterly, she contradicted House GOP leaders more often than any other Republican.
"Nobody can say I look like [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich or act like him or vote like him or that my district is like his district," Morella said. "If you look at my voting record, I vote with the president almost as often as I do with the speaker."
The record contains fodder for both campaigns. When Mooers points to GOP measures that contributed to an 8 percent decrease in federal employees in Montgomery since 1994, Morella responds by pointing to votes on federal pensions and other measures "to soften the landing" in the 8th Congressional District, which includes all but the southeastern corner of Montgomery County.
The challenger, a 36-year-old former State Department adviser, won a crowded primary with party establishment support and a liberal Democratic platform that emphasized universal health care and education. But Mooers's general election campaign has amounted to a rallying cry for partisanship.
That appeal has not worked in the past with Montgomery's famously independent-minded voters, but Mooers spies hope in the national flux of the closing days of the current campaign. As Republicans scramble to save the House majority they won in 1994, Mooers argues to Montgomery's Democratic base that a Morella victory in Maryland's 8th District could provide the margin that returns Gingrich (R-Ga.) to power.
The argument is being made by Democratic House candidates across the country, but Mooers, who has never held political office, argues that few districts have more at stake than Montgomery's. In the past, he said, "we always could count on a Democratic Congress to protect us. It was a nice luxury to have an acceptable Republican in there.
"Now it just doesn't make any sense."
Morella replies by pointing out her endorsement by government employee unions but also acknowledges hearing some voters parrot Mooers's radio ads linking her to Gingrich. That dynamic, say some of the candidates Morella has defeated over the years, differentiates the current campaign from the killing fields they remember.
Bainum, the multimillionaire chairman of health care and hotel chain Manor Care Inc. and a former state senator, faced Morella when the district had an open seat. He was a Democratic activist in a district where Democrats outnumbered Republicans almost 2 to 1, and the pundits and the political establishment expected his record $1 million in campaign spending to produce a victory -- even though liberal Republicans have held the seat for all but four terms since 1960.
In the end, Morella's fabled charm overwhelmed Bainum's reserve. It was widely known she had stepped in to raise her late sister's six children, in addition to her three. And when The Washington Post endorsed Morella five days before the election, Bainum's tracking poll showed his double-digit lead turn into a deficit of 4 percentage points overnight.
"We knew that night it was over," Bainum said. "They called me at home."
He lost by 6 percentage points.
Two years later, Democrats tapped Del. Franchot (Takoma Park) to challenge Morella at a House incumbent's most vulnerable point, the close of a first term. After two years in the State House, Franchot, a former congressional staffer, ran a well-financed, notably aggressive campaign. It ended with Morella's first landslide -- 63 percent of the votes.
At this point, many Montgomery Democrats simply stopped trying. When the party recruited no marquee candidate in 1990, Walker emerged from the primary. A real estate broker who listed his qualifications as a genius IQ of 173 "on the Stanford-Binet scale," Walker posed for his campaign poster clutching a cigarette holder.
To this day, Walker, still listed in the phone book as "for congress," is resentful of a county party that was openly dismissive of his campaign. "She's vacuous," he says of Morella. "I would say if a group of political science professors were voting, I could have gotten 80 percent. But with only average people, I would say about 40 percent."
What he got was 22 percent to Morella's 74. Both residents of Bethesda, the former rivals sometimes bump into one another at the local Giant supermarket.
"I was wearing at one time a Sergio Tacchini tennis shirt, and I noticed she kept her eye on my chest hair, which is very abundant," Walker said of one encounter. "Italian women are very attracted to that. . . . She was mesmerized by my chest hair."
Morella declined to comment on Walker's chest.
Heffernan, the self-effacing son of a lawyer-lobbyist, ran in 1992. Although termed "credible" by party officials, the 29-year-old candidate could not afford the broadcast ads that might have made Heffernan a household name. What's more, the district had lost Silver Spring and Takoma Park, reducing the ratio of Democrats and Republicans to 5 to 3. Still, he held Morella to 72 percent.
"Not to condemn myself for being less than top-flight," Heffernan said, "but you need a candidate around which the party can coalesce."
Two years ago, former Rockville mayor Steven Van Grack whittled Morella's vote to an even 70 percent. During the campaign, the Republican candidate routinely ended her speeches by quoting praise from President Clinton, a Democrat.
When Van Grack spoke to Clinton at a fund-raiser in the summer of 1995, he mentioned Morella's custom, adding that it was not terribly helpful to his own campaign. According to Van Grack, the president replied that Morella "gave me two votes on two very important issues" and that crediting her for it was the statesmanlike thing to do.
Clinton added, however, that "she hasn't given me any vote in a while," and so he wouldn't be praising her in the current election, Van Grack said. And last week, Clinton made good on his word, sending a letter of support not to Morella but to Mooers.
It may not mean a thing, given Montgomery voters' historical inclination to view the House seat as somehow above politics. But from the top of the ticket down, the Democrats, at least, are once again framing the race for the 8th as a partisan affair.
CAUGHT UNDER THE MORELLA STEAMROLLER
Constance A. Morella
Stewart Bainum Jr. 47% 53%
Peter Franchot 37% 63%
James Walker Jr. 22% 74%
Edward J. Heffernan 27% 72%
Steven Van Grack 30% 70%
Constance A. Morella vs. Donald L. Mooers
Democrat Mooers will try to be the first successful challenger Nov. 5.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company