By Len Lazarick
A “debate” with eight candidates — or 10 or 12 — is not really a debate, as the televised Republican presidential debates last year have shown. They are hampered by uneven questioning and unfair allocation of time.
Both those qualities hurt Thursday night’s “debate” by eight Republican candidates running for the chance to unseat Democrat John Delaney in the 6th Congressional District, one of Maryland’s eight gerrymandered House seats that might be seriously in play.
Republican Dan Bongino gave Delaney a scare for his money in 2014, coming within 2,774 votes of beating the Democrat in his second election. Bongino, who lived in Anne Arundel County far from the Western Maryland district, has since moved to Florida. The prospect of a vulnerable Delaney has attracted eight Republicans for this year’s contest.
Their first debate packed 150 people into a small room at the Gaithersburg Holiday Inn. Judging from the reactions of this lively crowd, this was a hard core Republican audience.
The eight candidates had to cope with sharing just two microphones and fielding a mishmash of questions directed at only one or two of them at a time from a panel of four Republicans. There was no follow-up, and the candidates were not allowed to respond to each other, so there was limited chance to actually compare their views, at least until the end, when Amie Hoeber, the lone woman and a veteran of the Reagan administration, was targeted by Red Maryland blogger Brian Griffiths for her views on abortion.
Bill Turque of the Washington Post focused on that controversy in his report on the debate, and other aspects of the 90-minute forum are covered by Lou Peck in Bethesda Magazine.
Blogger Ryan Miner was the first to put up a complete video of the entire debate, all embedded at the bottom on this story. The segment on abortion is in part 4.
It was a somewhat rocky close for an otherwise polished performance by Hoeber, who had also brought a long a solid contingent of supporters to applaud her stands. She told others later that she was personally opposed to abortion, but did not say that during the debate, leaving the impression that she supported “settled law” on the topic.
Her campaign also stacked the straw poll at $5 a pop to come out the winner; the Montgomery County GOP refused to give the actual vote count for what was likely a small number.
The heat that the abortion question generated in the room, along with positions taken on the Second Amendment and immigration, raised the question of whether the GOP base learned anything from the election of Larry Hogan. Of the four Republicans running for governor, he was the only one who steadfastly avoided discussing all of those issues, saying that abortion and gun control were settled law, even though he was personally opposed to both.
If you were looking for the candidates with the most polished positions in the standard Republican vein, Hoeber and businessman Frank Howard came out the best.
Baker may have best shot
But the candidate who might have the best shot to win the primary in such a crowded Republican field is Washington County Commission President Terry Baker.
Baker has been the top vote-getter in Washington County in the past two local elections, and Washington County generates the most votes in a Republican primary in the 6th Congressional District — 25% to 30% of the vote. Baker noted that the 26,000 votes he got in the last general election shows he can appeal to Democrats and independents too.
“I will not be an established Republican,” said Baker, 61. He has shown a lifelong willingness to run hard — in 1982 (not 1981, as he said in the debate), he came in 7th in the Boston Marathon, a remarkable feat even then.
At the moment, he looks like he will be seriously outspent by Hoeber, who had $147,000 cash on hand as of Sept. 30 due to a $100,000 personal loan to her campaign. That is 40 times more than Baker has on hand. But Hoeber is also virtually unknown everywhere in the district, but lives in Montgomery County, which generates the most votes. (Hoeber lives not far from John Delaney in Potomac, and neither actually live in the 6th District. Nor does Frank Howard.)
Will Baker have enough money to touch these voters even once?