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The 'Other' Potomac Primaries

Amidst the massive coverage of today's Potomac Primary on the presidential level, it's easy to forget that two House incumbents in Maryland face the very real possibility of losing their seats.

Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (R) and Al Wynn (D) find themselves in tough fights against well-funded challengers with a variety of outside interest groups spending heavily in hopes of influencing the outcome.

Let's break the races down one by one.

Maryland's 1st district, which Gilchrest has represented since 1990, is solidly Republican territory. It spans from the Eastern Shore all the way north to Harford and Cecil counties on the state's border with Delaware, and while there are some gradations within that geography (Eastern Shore voters tend to be more moderate than their neighbors to the north), this is a district that regularly gives Republican presidential candidates a wide winning margin.

Any district that is as reliably Republican as this one is sure to produce its fair share of ambitious pols looking for a step up the food chain. And, Gilchrest's moderate credentials and unwillingness to raise money from political action committees invite primary challengers.

In both 2002 and 2004, Gilchrest faced primary bids from candidates positioned on his ideological right. He won both times. But, this time around Gilchrest is in the toughest race of his life, facing state Sens. Andrew Harris and E.J. Pipkin.

Harris drew the early and active support of the Club for Growth, and it shows in his fundraising; Harris reported raising nearly $1.1 million as of Jan. 23. The club has also run a series of television ads seeking to tip the race to Harris.

Pipkin, who ran a quixotic challenge to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in 2004, jumped into the race late and, despite spending nearly $1 million of his own money, isn't considered a serious challenger to Gilchrest. What he could do, however, is take just enough of the anti-Gilchrest vote from Harris to allow Gilchrest to win with a vote share somewhere in the low 40s.

Gilchrest has always run unorthodox campaigns and won. So the fact that Harris has outraised him at nearly a two-to-one clip (Gilchrest reported raising $576,000 through Jan. 23) shouldn't be taken as a sign of weakness. His underfunded campaign has been aided by spending from Republicans Who Care, a 527 organization that has sponsored ads bashing Harris and Pipkin as wasteful spenders during their time in Annapolis. (Republicans who Care has close ties to the Republican Main Street Partnership.)

The top of the ticket could be determinative in deciding whether Harris can pull an upset or whether Gilchrest can make another narrow escape. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is expected to win the Maryland GOP presidential contest with ease today and Harris strategists acknowledge that McCain voters are far more likely to back Gilchrest than their guy. The issue is whether enough hard core Republican base voters turn out to send a message to McCain and the party about their lack of real choice in the race. If that anti-McCain vote comes out, Harris may be able to oust Gilchrest.

In Maryland's 4th district, Wynn faces a rematch against Donna Edwards who came from nowhere in 2006 to nearly beat Wynn in a stunningly close contest. Wynn, who never took Edwards all that seriously, wound up with a 49.7 percent to 46.4 percent victory over Edwards.

Emboldened by her near-miss, Edwards got started far earlier this cycle, and EMILY's List, the fundraising titan, quickly lined up behind her. The early start and the support of EMILY's List has made a huge difference in Edwards's bottom line; her 2008 pre-primary report -- covering cash raised and spent through Jan. 23 -- showed $794,000 raised as compared to $261,000 collected in her 2006 pre-primary report.

Edwards has also received significant support from outside groups including EMILY's List, which has spent more than $100,000 on mail for Edwards, as well as the Service Employees International Union ($875,000 on Edwards's behalf, including a $470,000 television buy) and Moveon.org

While Edwards' cash position is significantly improved since 2006, the dynamics of the race are decidedly similar. Edwards has again worked to portray Wynn as not sufficiently liberal for a district that gave Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) 78 percent of the vote in 2004. Edwards's main point of attack has been Wynn's vote for the 2002 use of force resolution against Iraq, a vote Wynn has said he regrets making. Edwards has also bashed Wynn for accepting more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from the banking industry.

The top of the ticket dynamics are fascinating in this contest. Given the 4th's large black population (57 percent of the district, according to the 2000 Census), the district will be a certain win for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). But, will black voters coming out in presumably record numbers vote for Wynn or Edwards?

Wynn got the jump on Edwards by endorsing Obama in the middle of last month and is hoping that his embrace of Obama will lead voters turning out to support the Illinois senator to opt for Wynn down ticket. Edwards, on the other hand, has mirrored Obama's message of change throughout the campaign and needs voters who are casting a vote against the status quo at the presidential level to do the same in the 4th district race.

Turnout is a HUGE wildcard in this race, as most everyone expects Obama to bring record numbers of people to the polls in the 4th district. But how many new voters come out and who they vote for in downballot races is a major point of contention between the two sides.

Serious primary challenges are the unintended consequence of a 2001 redistricting process that largely shored up incumbents of both parties nationwide. Without much turnover in Congress, ambitious politicians have decided that running a serious primary race may represent their best and only chance at getting to Congress. Over the last few cycles, any number of incumbents have been defeated as a result. Could the names of Wynn and Gilchrest be added to that ignominious list today?

For more reading on these two races, make sure to check out Ben Pershing's recent Capitol Briefing post.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 12, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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