Republican Amie Hoeber talks with voters outside the Ruritan Club in Maugansville, Md. (Bill Turque/The Washington Post)

The Maugansville Ruritan Club was packed for its all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast on a recent Saturday, as Amie Hoeber arrived to shake hands and chat.

It was the third visit to this Western Maryland town for Hoeber, the Republican challenging Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.). She had become a familiar face to some breakfasters, even though she, like Delaney, lives in wealthy Potomac, 66 miles to the southeast.

“Hi, Amy!” one woman greeted Hoeber, whose first name is pronounced AH-MEE (short for Amoretta). The candidate didn’t mind.

“If you vote for me, I don’t care how you say it.”

Hoeber and Delaney are both running hard in this odd duck of a district, gerrymandered by Democratic lawmakers in 2011 to grab a big swath of liberal Montgomery County before heading north and west through the state’s more conservative, and economically brittle, panhandle. The race has turned negative in the final weeks, with each side launching attack ads.

Political professionals say Hoeber faces a steep climb against Delaney, a two-term House incumbent who wants a strong showing that will preserve his 2018 options, including a possible gubernatorial or Senate run. But Hoeber, a defense expert who has drawn some support from the national GOP, views Delaney as vulnerable, since he squeaked past Republican radio talker Dan Bongino by less than two percentage points in 2014.

“In my view he’s out for himself, not his district,” Hoeber said. “I don’t think he pays attention to his constituents.”

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) mingles with people at the Frederick County Fair on Sept. 24. (Bill Turque/The Washington Post)

She and Delaney have more in common than their Zip code, located just outside the 6th Congressional District, which is an issue with some voters. Both scuffled early in life to establish themselves, and came to politics late. Both resisted family expectations that they would pursue medical careers.

‘3,000 men and me’

The daughter of a college English professor, Hoeber, 74, studied political science and humanities at Stanford University. After graduation, she became a research assistant at the Stanford Research Institute, working on ballistic missiles at a time when there were few other women in the industry.

“Three thousand men and me” is how she likes to describe her first big professional conference.

The early years, part of them as a divorced single mother, were difficult. Hoeber said she was furious when she realized she made two-thirds of what her male colleagues earned. She had to “essentially throw a few temper tantrums,” she recalled, to force equitable treatment.

But she was also mentored by leading cold warriors such as Paul Nitze and Albert Wohlstetter, the Rand Corp. nuclear theorist reputed to be one of the inspirations for the title character in the black comedy film “Dr. Strangelove” (1964).

By the 1980s, Hoeber was an expert in chemical and biological warfare and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, an influential foreign policy group that advocated a strong defense posture against the Soviet Union. That led to the Pentagon, where she oversaw Army research and development, and destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles. After leaving office, she spoke in opposition to the 1990 and 1996 treaties to destroy chemical weapons, arguing that provisions for verification and sanctions against violators were weak.

Hoeber decries Obama-era defense cuts, calls the Iran nuclear deal — which Delaney supported — “one of the major mistakes this administration has made,” and vows to cut government regulations and protect Second Amendment gun rights. If asked, she said she would vote to defund Planned Parenthood.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) endorses Amie Hoeber on Sept. 14 in her bid to unseat Delaney. Hoeber decries Obama-era defense cuts and vows to cut government regulations and protect Second Amendment gun rights. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

But Hoeber, who was endorsed last month by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), also lobbied for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and serves on the board of the Maryland chapter of the House of Ruth, which supports victims of domestic violence.

Although Delaney tried to brand her in an ad as “an extreme tea party partisan,” she spoke openly at a tea party-sponsored debate in Allegany County last March about her opposition to government restrictions on abortion rights and her advocacy for women in the workplace.

When the moderator then asked the first-time candidate whether she believed in affirmative action, she said no. But she described her support as a form of “sisterhood” that tries to ease for other women the difficult professional path she encountered.

“I have constantly, ever since then, mentored young women and offered them a hand up,” she said.

Eternal optimist

Delaney, 53, is the son of a New Jersey electrician who attended Columbia University on a union scholarship before enrolling at Georgetown University Law Center. He founded two successful companies — one financed health-care businesses, the other lent to small- and medium-size firms — and still seems to frame much of the world in a business context.

Strolling through the Frederick County Fair last weekend, he stopped to chat with two employees of a home rehab company, asking how sales were going.

“Nothing happens until somebody sells something,” he said.

A devout Catholic, Delaney brings a steely optimism to his work laboring in the House minority. Describing how technology and globalization have dramatically raised living standards worldwide, he told a Gaithersburg audience, “If that’s not the hand of God at work, I don’t know what is.”

“In reality, the world continues to get better,” he said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have significant challenges. But you always have faith, I think, and I have faith, that the course of humankind and human existence is to improve.”

Delaney makes calls at his Hagerstown office. The Democrat touts himself as a solution-seeking bipartisan, pointing to surveys that rank him near the top for across-the-aisle collaboration with Republicans. (Bill Turque/The Washington Post)

He touts himself as a solution-seeking bipartisan, pointing to surveys that rank him near the top for across-the-aisle collaboration with Republicans. He has been critical of the White House on Syria, and broke with Democrats to vote for a bill requiring more rigorous background checks on Syrian refugees.

Delaney’s signature legislative proposal, which would allow corporations to repatriate a portion of their overseas earnings tax-free in exchange for buying bonds to fund infrastructure renewal, has 50 GOP co-sponsors. While still far from a floor vote, the infrastructure bill has had an impact, he said.

“It all depends on how you measure outcomes,” he said, munching on a slice of pizza at his Hagerstown headquarters. “No one had thought about the idea until I got to Congress. Now on CNBC they probably talk about it once a day.”

He pointed out district-level improvements, such as working with Comcast to get Baltimore TV news for Garrett County after years of Pittsburgh-only viewing. He put together workshops for constituents to talk with government officials and private-sector experts about debt, identity theft and veterans issues.

Money is not a concern for either candidate. Delaney spent $3.3 million of his fortune on his first two campaigns, and has raised about $1 million through June 30 for his current race, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Hoeber, who outspent seven primary opponents, has invested more than a half-million dollars in loans or personal funds as part of her $760,000 in contributions.

The biggest boost for Hoeber has been from her husband, former Qualcomm executive Mark Epstein, who gave more than $2 million to Maryland USA, a super PAC that has so far supported just one candidate — Hoeber.

Despite living under the same roof and traveling together to campaign events (“He’s my driver,” she said), Hoeber and Epstein insisted that they have abided by federal laws barring communication or coordination between super PACs and candidates.

Delaney disagreed, and he filed a complaint with the FEC last week.

Both Hoeber and Maryland USA have accused Delaney of profiting from predatory lending a reference to CapitalSource, the firm founded by Delaney in 2000. In 2009, it lent $30 million to Aeon Financial, a company that bought tax liens placed on homes in the District and Maryland, then charged the owners huge fees to avoid foreclosure. Delaney said he was strictly a lender and had nothing to do with Aeon’s activities, which were the subject of a 2013 article in The Washington Post.

When Delaney joined this summer’s Democratic House sit-in, an attempt to force gun-control measures to the floor, Hoeber accused him of “playing kindergarten games.”

Delaney, in turn, has slammed Hoeber for supporting GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, a decision she called “a matter of honor” because she promised to back the party’s nominee.

She acknowledges that Trump’s crude and disparaging comments about women haven’t made it easy. Asked if she has made her peace with the top of the ballot, she said, “As much peace as one can make.”

She would need overwhelming support from the deep-red western portions of the district, and a better-than-expected performance in more moderate areas such as Potomac and Gaithersburg, to oust Delaney, who has accumulated his share of Republican supporters during his four years in office.

Katie Nash, a GOP activist from Frederick who was at the county fair, said she has been impressed with how seriously Delaney seems to take his job.

“It’s not just that he’s bipartisan,” she said. “Every time I went to hear him speak, he came prepared with fact-based and solution-based ideas.”