Western Maryland’s 6th Congressional District was a tantalizing near-miss for Republicans in 2014, when former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino came within 2,700 votes, out of 190,000 cast, of unseating Democratic Rep. John Delaney.
Bongino has since moved to Florida, but eight other Republicans will face off in the April 26 primary for a chance to pick up where he left off. They include a Reagan-era Pentagon official, a first-term state delegate and Bongino’s former campaign chairman.
Nudging that narrow loss into the victory column will be difficult, Republican strategists acknowledge. Bongino benefited from traditionally low turnout in mid-term elections and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s surprisingly strong performance at the top of the ticket. There was also, perhaps, some complacency in the Delaney camp, which didn’t see Bongino coming until late in the race.
The 2016 general election, on the other hand, will likely energize many Democrats who stayed home in 2014 — both because it is a presidential election year and because the open Senate seat now held by retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) will be on the ballot.
Nevertheless, party insiders say the crowded Republican primary field in the 6th District race reflects a new enthusiasm generated by Hogan’s upset victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
“Look, it’s Maryland,” said Jim Burton, Bongino’s pollster. “Any seat a Republican runs for is pretty challenging. But Larry Hogan gives Republicans hope in areas where they didn’t think they had opportunity.”
Maryland’s 6th District starts in prosperous Potomac, stretching nearly 200 miles north and then west through the Appalachian counties in the Maryland panhandle.
Like the state’s seven other congressional districts, the 6th was gerrymandered by Democrats after the 2000 and 2010 censuses — so egregiously contorted that they are under court challenge, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this month that the lawsuit should be heard by a panel of three judges in U.S. District Court.
About 200,000 of the state’s 950,000 registered Republicans live in the 1st District, the state’s sole GOP-majority district, which takes in the northern suburbs of Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. The other 750,000 are scattered across the remaining seven districts, five of which have Democratic majorities of 60 percent or better.
There is a rare open seat in the 8th District, where Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen is running for Mikulski’s Senate seat. But registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in that district 50 percent to 27 percent, and the Washington area television market makes advertising hugely expensive.
So far, just two Republicans have announced in the 8th: Silver Spring attorney and former County Council candidate Shelly Skolnick, and policy analyst and former congressional staffer Aryeh Shudofsky, also of Silver Spring.
The Democratic registration advantage in the 6th is 44 percent to 32 percent — still tough, but not insurmountable, especially with more than 100,000 independents also on the rolls. That’s one reason Maryland GOP Executive Director Joe Cluster is calling the 6th District the party’s “number-one priority” among the 2016 congressional campaigns.
“If a Republican can put an effective campaign together, there’s enough votes in the district to make a competitive race out of it.” Cluster said.
At a minimum, Republicans would like to give Delaney another tough race, to slow any momentum he might be looking for if he decides to run to unseat Hogan as governor in 2018.
Among the candidates challenging him are defense consultant Amie Hoeber and businessman Frank Howard. Like Delaney, they both live in the 8th District 8, not the 6th; the U.S. Constitution says members of Congress must live in the states they represent, but not necessarily the districts.
Hoeber is being recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program, which the committee’s website defines as for candidates who “embody the principles of the House Republican Conference and show promise of running a successful campaign.” The group is not endorsing in the primary, but would likely give Hoeber money and other support for the general election if she wins in April.
Whoever runs against Delaney, a multimillionaire, will need lots of cash. He spent $2.5 million of his own money to defeat Republican incumbent Roscoe G. Bartlett in 2012 and, once he felt Bongino’s footsteps, dropped $800,000 into the last two weeks of the 2014 campaign.
Hoeber, who lives just a few doors from Delaney in the Bradley Hills neighborhood of Potomac, has resources of her own. She and her husband, Mark Epstein,a former senior executive at Qualcomm, have already made a $100,000 personal loan to the campaign.
“We don’t pretend to match Delaney, but we do fine,” said Hoeber, at 73 one of the older “Young Guns” the national party has tapped.
A super PAC, Maryland USA , has spent about $200,000 on mobile advertising to support Hoeber, according to federal filings. The first three ads were posted earlier this month. Hoeber declined to comment on a report in Bethesda magazine that Epstein planned to give as much as $1 million to the PAC, saying her husband has contributed but adding that she does not know how much. Federal laws bars any coordination between super PACs and campaigns.
“We have counsel working with us to ensure we are completely legal,” Hoeber said. “We have absolutely no involvement” in how the PAC is run.
Maryland USA’s ads stress Hoeber’s tenure as deputy undersecretary of the Army under President Ronald Reagan, who she said remains her “role model for public service” because of his commitment to a strong national defense and economic growth. She said her breadth of experience in government and the private sector — her firm, AMH Consulting, worked with contractors and federal agencies on security issues — makes her the best choice to oppose Delaney.
Other 6th District hopefuls sound similar themes around national security, jobs and less regulated government. Howard, 54, a Laytonsville resident and Bongino’s former campaign chairman, hopes to capitalize on his better-than-expected showing (42 percent) in a 2014 race against State Sen. Karen Montgomery (D). He calls himself “a work-across-the-aisle kind of guy” who could help ease partisan gridlock in Congress.
Del. David Vogt (R-Frederick), 31, is a Marine veteran who fought in Afghanistan. He dropped out of the 2014 primary against Bongino to run for the House of Delegates. Early this month, he posted his first ad, which showed him lacing up his combat boots to stride the halls of the State House, promising a “conservative boots on the ground” approach to government. Vogt, who lives in Brunswick, introduced a bill last week that would revoke the tax-exempt status of any Maryland mosque or other organization that is found to support jihad.
The other candidates are Washington County Commissioner Terry Baker, Montgomery Village bioscientist Scott Cheng, Boyds activist Robin Ficker, Frederick security consultant and ex-Marine Christopher Mason and Gaithersburg accountant Harold Painter.
Delaney spokesman Justin Schall said the Democratic incumbent is ready to run a strong race against whoever wins the GOP primary. “John has always run very hard. He takes every election very seriously, and this year will be no different,” Schall said.
An earlier version of this article included a photo that was misidentified as David Vogt. The photo was of Frank Howard.