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Redistrict puts Bartlett’s House seat in play

CLARKSBURG — Maryland’s ruling Democrats had a plan to oust 10-term Republican U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. They redrew his mostly rural district to include about 300,000 voters in Democrat-heavy Montgomery County and endorsed state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola to succeed him.

Even though Garagiola failed to win his party’s nomination, the numbers in the new district still favor the man who did: politically moderate banking entrepreneur John Delaney of Potomac.

Now the 86-year-old incumbent must persuade independent and crossover voters in the Washington suburbs that he is more of a centrist than his 92 percent rating from the American Conservative Union suggests. Meanwhile, the better-financed Delaney, 49, has been running a brisk schedule of events on his home turf.

Bartlett acknowledged in a recent interview that Montgomery County is the battleground in a district that also includes part of Frederick County and all of Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, spooling westward across the Appalachians.

“Obviously, 20 years in western Maryland, they know us there, so we spend most of our time in Montgomery County,” Bartlett said during a campaign stop in Clarksburg, about 20 miles from Washington.

Voter registrations in the district favor Democrats over Republicans, 46 percent to 34 percent, with the remaining 20 percent registered as independent. But Bartlett said he’s seen polls indicating voter sentiment is “center-right — which is where Republicans ought to be.”

Independent voter Louise Bristow, visiting a recent Montgomery County Oktoberfest, said she’s more likely to vote for Delaney Nov. 6, partly because she leans to the left and partly because he’s a more familiar figure.

“We’ve seen their commercials — I’ve seen more Delaney than I have Bartlett for sure,” Bristow said as Bartlett chatted with visitors at a nearby GOP booth.

Delaney outraised Bartlett by more than 80 percent in the three months ending Sept. 30 and has personally loaned or contributed $1.9 million to his own campaign.

Delaney’s ads tout his experience creating more than 2,000 private-sector jobs as the founder of two publicly traded financial corporations: commercial lender CapitalSource Inc. and BancAlliance, which helps community and regional banks pool their lending resources. As a congressman, he said he’d make federal support for education his top priority and fight for middle-class job growth and federal deficit reduction.

Delaney proudly calls himself a capitalist. He favors lower corporate taxes and elimination of certain deductions and loopholes to make American business more competitive. His views on abortion and immigration are in line with the Democratic mainstream. But his questioning whether organized labor impedes Maryland job creation sometimes make him sound more like Mitt Romney than Barack Obama. Yet he’s got the support of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO.

And some Democratic voters say they’ll forgive Delaney’s failure to vote in the 2006 general election and the 2010 Democratic primary — omissions he says he regrets and which Bartlett’s campaign was quick to criticize. Delaney said he had to make a last-minute business trip in 2010 and that he can’t remember why he didn’t vote in 2006.

“I think voting is a wonderful privilege and we should exercise it all the time,” he said in an interview after a rousing “Women for Delaney” rally in Germantown. As to whether he can be trusted to show up for congressional votes, Delaney said his commitment to his campaign, his community and public service, “speaks to my commitment to take these things seriously.”

That’s good enough for Gary Carter, a registered Democrat who owns the G&G Grill in Hagerstown.

“I think everybody has done that once or twice in their life, where they decided it’s best just to stay away from the polls because they’ve decided neither candidate is good for the job,” he said.

‘I am who I am’

Bartlett, a physiologist, farmer and real-estate developer, hammers his longtime themes of fiscal discipline and self-reliance but he also mentions the maverick environmentalism that has always distinguished him from his party’s far right wing. A longtime advocate for renewable energy and hybrid cars, Bartlett told the audience at a candidate forum in Hagerstown, “I’m probably the greenest Republican on Capitol Hill.”

The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund disagreed, saying Bartlett recently voted to dismantle the Clean Water Act, block limits on mercury and carbon emissions and continue taxpayer subsidies to the oil industry. The group gave him a 9 percent rating, down from a high of 47 percent in 2005-06.

Bartlett objected to The Washington Post’s characterization of him as an inflexible contributor to congressional gridlock in an editorial endorsing Delaney.

“I was Nancy Pelosi’s date at the last two State of the Unions,” Bartlett said. “I reach across the aisle. I am who I am and I vote my conscience, I vote my district. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand other people and where their positions are and that I don’t have the ability to dialogue with them.”

Bartlett chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces. He counts among his achievements a 2006 law barring condominium and homeowner associations from restricting how the American flag can be displayed and a 2001 law permitting the adoption of military working dogs after their retirement. He has also championed banning scientific research on chimpanzees, and he warns frequently that an electromagnetic pulse, such as that from a nuclear explosion in space, could disable all electronic devices.

Losing Bartlett would mean losing some clout in Congress, said Sylvia J. Darrow, treasurer of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee.

“Once you lose a committee person, a young person coming in, a new face, has to work the ladder back up again,” Darrow said.

Hagerstown’s Republican mayor, Robert Bruchey, said continuity is important to municipal officials who prefer to work with a congressional member they know.

“He’s a very conservative individual. We’re a conservative county up here,” Bruchey said. “A little bit further east you go — not so conservative.”

Bruchey said redistricting has made it difficult for Bartlett to retain his seat.

“They’ve made it as hard as they could for him to do that,” he said.