The candidates preparing for the District 6 Congressional Republican primary include from left to right: Frank Howard, Amie Hoeber, Terry Baker and Del. David Vogt. Photos from campaign websites or Maryland's state legislative website.
As Labor Day marks the ramping up of the 2016 campaign, it’s become clear that a second Montgomery County-based congressional district will face a crowded—and financially costly—contest in next April’s primary election.
But, while a seven-way Democratic primary in District 8 is likely to determine the successor to Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the primary season maneuvering in neighboring District 6 has been on the Republican side. So far, seven Republicans have filed to compete for the nomination for the seat first captured in 2012 by Democratic Rep. John Delaney, and more may join them.
The 6th District, which starts in Potomac and Gaithersburg and extends nearly 200 miles to Garrett County in far western Maryland, was redrawn—gerrymandered, critics say—in 2011 to boost chances of electing a Democrat; about half of the district’s registered voters now reside in Montgomery County. But Delaney, after winning comfortably in his first run, squeaked by Republican Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent, by only 50 percent to 48 percent in 2014. Bongino earlier this year moved out of Maryland for a job in Florida, leaving national as well as local Republicans to eye the district.
In the view of party insiders, four of the 2016 Republican aspirants—three of whom have filed only within the past couple of months—currently form the top tier of contenders in the District 6 primary field: Washington County Commissioners President Terry Baker, Potomac-based national security consultant Amie Hoeber, Laytonsville businessman Frank Howard, and Del. David Vogt of Brunswick, in Frederick County.
Interviews with the four over the past week revealed few significant differences on high-profile issues now in play before Congress or in the Republican presidential campaign. Rather, the 6th District primary seems likely to turn on the contenders’ past experience and current political positioning, along with geography—as candidates from different corners of the sprawling district seek to secure their home turf.
Then there is the matter of campaign finances.
Early in the 6th District Republican race, widespread conventional wisdom suggested a primary victory could be secured for $250,000 or less—a fraction of the $1 million minimum likely to be required for success in the Democratic primary in neighboring District 8, most of which is centered in the expensive Washington, D.C., media market. But the emergence of Hoeber, who has indicated a willingness to pump substantial personal funds into the contest, seems likely to increase pressure on rival camps to step up fundraising and spending.
“I’m not self-financing— I’m raising funds like mad and I think I’m being very successful,” said Hoeber, a deputy undersecretary of the Army during the Reagan administration who, at 73, is making her first run for elective office. But she acknowledged, “I certainly will partially self-fund it.” She declined to specify an amount of self-funding, but added: “I’m willing to put in a fair amount of money. I care enough about doing this to take some action.”
A significant portion of the funding for Hoeber’s candidacy is expected to come from her husband, Mark Epstein— a long-time senior executive of Qualcomm, a leading developer and manufacturer of mobile communications technology. According to sources, Epstein is preparing to set up a so-called “Super PAC” to benefit Hoeber’s campaign, and donate as much as $1 million of his personal assets to it.
Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts to advocate for or against candidates, have been utilized to direct funds to multiple congressional candidates since a 2010 Supreme Court decision—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—allowed for their creation. But their use to benefit only a single candidate at the congressional level is a relatively new development. Because Super PACs involve “independent expenditures,” Hoeber’s campaign and the Super PAC to be established by Epstein are barred under federal law from coordinating their activities.
Hoeber is said to have been urged to enter the District 6 contest by the National Republican Congressional Committee—the campaign arm of the House GOP majority—with officials there eager to recruit a female candidate with relatively centrist leanings. “I think I bring a measured approach to issues that looks at practical solutions—and not extreme ideology—that can attract a broad range of voters, so that we can take back the district for the Republicans,” Hoeber said.
For whomever wins the nomination, winning the district will presumably mean toppling Delaney —who, according to a compilation by Roll Call, is Congress’ third wealthiest member, with minimum assets of $114 million from a career as a financial services entrepreneur. Delaney pumped almost $940,000 of personal funds into his race against Bongino last year.
When Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced her retirement last March and Van Hollen quickly joined the race to succeed her, Delaney said he was considering a 2016 Senate run as well. Six months later, he has yet to rule out that option publicly.
However, there are no overt signs Delaney is taking any steps toward a Senate campaign, and the nearly universal opinion in both parties is that he will seek re-election in 2016—hoping to use increased Democratic turnout in a presidential year to build a large victory margin, and then seek his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018. By the same token, the possibility of derailing Delaney prior to the governor’s race is fueling GOP interest in the District 6 contest in 2016.
Hoeber’s candidacy has complicated campaign strategy for fellow Montgomery County resident Howard. As the one-time chair of Bongino’s 2014 campaign, Howard, 54, had hoped to capitalize on support from Bongino’s network of supporters in lieu of a large campaign spending budget, sources said.
Howard resigned as Bongino’s campaign chair early last year to run for state Senate in eastern Montgomery County, mounting a competitive but ultimately losing effort against Democratic Sen. Karen Montgomery. He later considered a 2016 run for the Republican nomination in Democratic-dominated District 8, but switched to the District 6 contest early this summer. (Hoeber and Howard, like Delaney, actually reside in District 8, just over the line from District 6; under the U.S. Constitution, a congressional candidate need only be a resident of the state in which the district is located, not of the district itself.)
Co-founder of a business development firm, Howard is emphasizing his business background and status as a political “outsider.” Declared Howard, “I am not only not a career politician, I have never held elective office, and I think the public mood is ripe for that.” He described himself as a “conservatarian—a mix of conservative and libertarian views and philosophies.”
In addition to Hoeber and Howard, there could be as many as four other Montgomery County-based Republicans in the primary race. Two who have filed are regarded as longshots: Xiangfei “Scott” Cheng of Montgomery Village, who lost a state delegate race in 2014 by a wide margin, and Harold Painter of Gaithersburg, who lost to Bongino by a more than 4-1 margin in the 2014 District 6 primary.
Considering a run is government consultant Thomas Ferleman of Germantown, who heads a citizens advocacy group called Change Montgomery County, according to A Miner Detail, a 6th District-based blog. Then there is attorney Robin Ficker, who told a recent Washington County GOP gathering that he may run. Since serving a term in the General Assembly more than three decades ago, Ficker has been a perennial candidate for offices ranging from U.S. Senate to school board. This would be Ficker’s third bid for the District 6 seat.
The proliferation of candidates from the Montgomery section of the district could play to the advantage of the major contenders from the counties to the west: Baker and Vogt. Also filed is Christopher Mason, who lost a thinly funded campaign for a GOP nomination to the Frederick County Council in 2014.
After eight years in the Marines and two tours in Afghanistan, Vogt initially took on Bongino for the 6th District nod in 2014, but withdrew several months before the primary. Instead, he successfully ran for delegate on a slate headed by now-state Sen. Michael Hough, who aligned himself with the GOP’s tea party wing.
“There are certain policy issues that I agree on with folks who align themselves with the tea party,” Vogt said. “But I would not classify myself 100 percent along the tea party line. I am an American citizen who wants government out of my life, and who wants fiscal responsibility put back in government.”
Vogt, 31, has faced some intraparty criticism for running for Congress barely six months after winning his first term in the General Assembly. Replied Vogt: “I love my job as delegate, and I’m not trying to give that up—but I don’t schedule elections, and John Delaney is not representing Maryland in Washington.”
Vogt said he “went around and asked my [state legislative] colleagues—every single one of them who live in the district—if I could help one of them run and win. And none of them felt like it was the thing for them to do. And then they asked me to consider it. I’m a Marine—I’m not going to back down from a fight.”
He has been endorsed by 25 of his 49 Republican colleagues in the House of Delegates, including three who represent Baker’s home turf of Washington County. But Baker’s supporters appear to be banking on their candidate—the top vote-getter in the race for five commissioner seats in 2010 and 2014—sweeping a large portion of the vote in Washington County as well as Allegany and Garrett counties to the west, as the primary vote splinters elsewhere.
Baker, who attended Auburn University on a track scholarship and recently retired after 35 years as an industrial arts teacher in the Washington County schools, is in his third term as a county commissioner. He boasted of reduced county spending and taxes since 2010, declaring, “We must be doing something right—we’ve been upgraded to a Double AA-plus bond rating, and I’d like to think that me being the conservative that I am has a lot to do with that.”
But there have been questions about whether the 59-year old Baker is ready to make the jump to the congressional stage. At a GOP picnic in Gaithersburg in late July, some Republicans privately expressed puzzlement when Baker—in the midst of a somewhat disjointed talk to the crowd—interjected by saying, “Excuse me, I’m a little nervous.”
Asked last week why, as a veteran public official, he would be nervous in such a setting, Baker responded: “For me, if I get in front of a group and I don’t get nervous, I think it’s time for me to get out of politics. It’s good to have an audience out there that’s paying attention, and it’s OK to get nervous.”
He added: “I’m not a sage of the stage. I guide from the side—and that’s my strength.”