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'Change' Message Takes On Congress

By Reid Wilson

FORT WASHINGTON, Maryland - When Maryland voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they will not only have the opportunity to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or John McCain and Mike Huckabee, they will have the chance to offer the first real glimpse into the notion of change. In two closely-watched Congressional primaries, voters will weigh in on the fates of veteran incumbents and their challengers.

In both cases, if the incumbents fall, Congressional candidates around the country will perk up their ears: The message of change that Clinton, Obama, McCain and Huckabee have been pushing will be proven as a real force in motivating voters, and the way each party appropriates that argument could determine just how well their nights turn out after voters cast ballots in November.

Instead of sitting in a Thai restaurant in a Prince George's County strip mall, nonprofit foundation executive Donna Edwards is supposed to be glad-handing voters at a local African-American heritage celebration. But high winds in the Washington area Sunday knocked out power at the community center where the festival was held, giving Edwards a moment to breathe. She should take the time, too; after campaigning for months to unseat 8-term Democratic Rep. Al Wynn, Edwards' voice is hoarse.

But, she says, two days before the primary, her team is ready. And as she talks about her campaign themes, a familiar strain breaks through, one that would not be out of place on the presidential stage. "We're doing everything that we need to do to work right up to Tuesday and make that change happen," she said, when asked how she felt her campaign was going.

In 2006, Edwards came within just over three percentage points of beating Wynn in this suburban Washington district. Edwards attacked Wynn for voting in favor of the resolution to use force in Iraq, criticized his support for energy legislation backed by the Bush Administration and hit him on his association with businesses. She was competitive financially, and the Washington Post endorsed her just days before the primary.

This time, Edwards is back, and given the atmosphere, her chances of knocking off the powerful incumbent look better. Unlike two years ago, her campaign has a manager and she has invested significant resources in a ground organization. In the final three months of 2007 and through the first three weeks of 2008, Edwards raised nearly $580,000, outpacing Wynn's $416,000. Pre-primary reports with the FEC showed Edwards maintained more than a two-to-one cash on hand advantage as well, with $338,000 left to spend compared with just $146,000 for Wynn.

The district, which rings Washington from its southern tip, at the Woodrow Wilson bridge, east to its northern corner in Silver Spring, is Maryland's most heavily Democratic; both John Kerry and Al Gore approached 80% of the vote in runs against President Bush here. Combining Prince George's County and Montgomery County also created a district heavy with African Americans. Whites make up just a quarter of the district's population, while 57% of residents here are black, as are both Wynn and Edwards.

Based on primary and caucus results in prior contests this year, that means polling stations on Tuesday will likely be overrun by voters looking to cast a ballot in the presidential contest. Not only is turnout up across the board, but African American turnout, as demonstrated most obviously in South Carolina, has shot through the roof. That, says Edwards, is good news for her. "The electorate that is turning out is very definitively an electorate that wants change, and significant change. They don't want those sort of minor tweaks," she said. "They want real, you know, transformative action in their politics. I think those are exactly the kind of voters I attract."

Edwards and Wynn have both endorsed Obama, who is likely to sweep to a huge victory margin in the district. Edwards, though, has done more to associate herself with the Illinois Senator. "I share with Obama the major themes of his campaign," she said, citing their backgrounds as organizers and dropping a key message point against Wynn. "[Obama is] not taking any corporate special interest PAC money and neither am I," Edwards said.

On Maryland's Eastern shore, another, very different battle for Congress is taking place as Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest faces yet another primary challenger who asserts he is too liberal for a conservative district. In his nine terms representing the state's First District, Gilchrest has faced a number of well-financed primary battles against more conservative Republicans. He managed to outspend them both and beat them by wide margins.

This year, Gilchrest finds State Senators Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin running for his seat. Unlike previous years, both Harris and Pipkin are well-financed; each have outraised and outspent Gilchrest, though Pipkin has done so with the aid of almost $550,000 of his own money while raising another $50,000 from other sources. Harris, on the other hand, had raised $1.1 million through January 23, almost twice Gilchrest's $567,000. Harris also has backing from the Club for Growth, a group that has not been shy about running ads against the incumbent.

Pipkin's candidacy complicates Harris's plans. A late entry, some suspected Pipkin's candidacy was designed to steal votes from Harris and ensure Gilchrest another term, a charge Pipkin has denied vehemently. A wealthy businessman and one-time U.S. Senate candidate, he enjoys some name recognition, and much of his district overlaps with Gilchrest. A mid-December poll, conducted for Pipkin's campaign, showed him tied with Harris at 27% while Gilchrest edged both with 33%.

Still, Harris has money left to spend, while Pipkin is rapidly running out of money. Harris had more than $360,000 in the bank in late January, while Pipkin had only $95,000. The Club for Growth's involvement has brought Gilchrest within reach, and as Harris pours money into advertisements, he has the best chance of any Gilchrest challenger yet.

Harris, too, talks about change, though he aims to correct a party gone awry. "As a Republican, I'll bring us back to a Republican majority based on Republican principles," he told RCP in an interview. His party lost in 2006, Harris said, for a simple reason. "It's pretty clear they stopped being Republicans."

Many have speculated that a prime reason Republican voters stayed home in 2006 was not the war in Iraq or disgust with the Bush Administration, but with Republicans' failures to rein in out of control spending. "We need to return to our small-government, low-spending Reagan roots," Harris said. "We wandered from them. If we wander from the Reagan roots, we lose our identity."

Republican voters tired of their party's new-found free-spending ways have blamed both the Congressional GOP and the administration for failing to issue more vetoes. If Republicans are as hungry for change as Democrats say they are, GOP voters seek to rebuild a solid party foundation first, something Democrats don't feel they need to accomplish. Harris has sought to identify himself as the candidate to do just that.

In races for both the First and the Fourth districts, voters have the option to choose dramatically different members of Congress than they currently have. If one or both challengers are successful, it will send a message to any incumbents hoping to keep their jobs in November: Anyone seen as "of Washington" is especially susceptible to defeat.

"I feel like there's, you know, just this tidal wave of change that's sweeping across the country, and it's really going to crest in the Fourth District on Tuesday," Edwards said. If she's right, she and Harris may be headed to Washington with what could be a record-setting freshman class.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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