In a year in which the outcome of most Maryland contests on the November election ballot is all but a foregone conclusion, the sprawling 6th Congressional District could host one of the few competitive races in the state this fall.
Just how competitive is in dispute, based on conflicting public opinion polls touted over the past week by Democratic Rep. John Delaney and his Republican challenger, national security consultant Amie Hoeber. Both are residents of the same Potomac neighborhood, and are seeking election in a district that extends from Montgomery County more than 200 miles to the western tip of the Maryland Panhandle.
The Delaney campaign Wednesday released a survey, conducted by the Washington-based firm of Garin-Hart-Yang, that shows Delaney leading Hoeber by an overwhelming 59 percent to 31 percent, with the remaining 10 percent of the electorate undecided. The survey of 400 likely general election voters has an error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The Garin-Hart-Yang poll was conducted during a three-day period beginning May 23—the same day that Maryland USA, a so-called Super PAC formed to boost Hoeber’s candidacy, showed Hoeber behind Delaney by just 40 percent to 38 percent. The Maryland USA poll, conducted by the Florida-based firm of Tel Opinion Research, sampled 600 likely general election voters from May 18-20, with an error margin of 4 points—making the race too close to call, according to that firm. The Tel Opinion Research survey shows Green Party candidate George Gluck with 4 percent, and the remaining 18 percent undecided.
Hoeber, who, at 74, is making her first run for elective office, was a deputy undersecretary of the Army in the Reagan administration. “The poll results…demonstrate that voters in the [6th District] are poised to reject the status quo and are ready to elect political outsider Amie Hoeber,” declared Michael Leavitt, a spokesman for Maryland USA, in a memo.
In turn, the Garin-Hart-Yang memo asserted: “Given…Delaney’s high name ID and strong positive image, and his nearly 2-1 lead over his opponent in the initial trial heat, John Delaney is well positioned to win re-election this November.” The memo claimed Delaney is backed not only by nine of 10 Democrats, but a quarter of Republicans as well, while having a 2-1 edge among independent voters.
Delaney was first elected in 2012, ousting then-Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett by more than 20 points after the 6th District was redrawn—gerrymandered, critics complain—to give it a far greater Democratic tilt, largely by including large swaths of western and northern Montgomery County. But, in 2014—a difficult year for Democrats both in Maryland and nationwide—Delaney came within a couple of points of losing to Republican challenger Dan Bongino.
So where does that leave things in 2016, with five months until Election Day?
Polls taken by candidates or allied organizations are invariably treated with skepticism by outsiders, given that they are intended to put the best possible face on a campaign—or they wouldn’t be publicly released. In this instance, the truth about the current state of the race likely lies somewhere in between the two polls, given details that each survey does not address or seeks to skirt.
To be sure, the widespread view among independent observers is that Delaney will benefit from the high turnout produced this year by the presidential election, in which—whatever the outcome nationwide—Maryland is expected to vote strongly for the Democratic nominee. The Garin-Hart-Yang poll gives likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton a 9 point advantage in the 6th District over presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.
It is largely for this reason that a couple of leading Washington-based handicappers of congressional races—the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report—rate the Maryland 6th as “likely Democratic” or “safe Democratic,” respectively. The Cook Report defines “likely Democratic” as “not considered competitive at this point, but [to] have the potential to become engaged.”
A careful reading of the Garin-Hart-Yang poll points to the reasons the race could become “engaged.”
The survey noted that nearly four in five voters polled, 78 percent, are familiar with Delaney’s name, as compared to just 31 percent for Hoeber—who captured the Republican primary on April 26, winning about one-third of the vote in a contest with seven other contenders. Left unsaid in the poll memo is that, as Hoeber becomes better known and her name recognition rises, she has the potential to close a significant portion of the recognition gap with Delaney.
The Garin-Hart-Yang memo continued: “…When asked to rate their feelings toward Delaney, he elicits positive marks by better than three to one.” However, the precise percentage of those polled who gave positive marks to Delaney was not disclosed. The Delaney campaign declined to release these percentages in response to a request from Bethesda Beat.
Because a number of the voters in so-called “horse race” polls often refrain from offering an opinion of a candidate they may recognize, it remains unclear how many—or how few—of the 78 percent who recognized Delaney’s name reacted positively to him. In such polls, the number of respondents saying they will vote for a candidate often exceeds that candidate’s approval rating, indicating a potential softness of support among the 59 percent saying they would vote for Delaney if the election were held today.
By the same token, the memo issued by Maryland USA claiming the race is a dead heat raised questions about whether Hoeber’s numbers may have been boosted by a controversial practice known as “push polling.” This involves asking a voter whom he or she supports, and then reading the respondent a series of statements favorable to one candidate and unfavorable to that candidate’s opponent—in a bid to improve the showing of the candidate on whose behalf the poll is being conducted.
“…Delaney was found to be vulnerable on several issues including his support of the Iran nuclear deal and his past business practices,” Tel Opinion Research CEO Bill Lee declared in the poll memo. “Our polling showed that if voters are informed about Delaney’s pro-Iran policies and his past business dealings and are educated about Amie Hoeber’s record on jobs and fighting terrorism, Amie Hoeber will be victorious in November.”
The reference to Delaney’s business practices appears to harken back to the 2012 campaign, when his primary opponent, then-state Sen. Rob Garagiola, accused Delaney, a financial services entrepreneur, of lending money at excessive rates and doing business with unscrupulous firms—charges denied strongly at the time by the Delaney campaign.
Leavitt, spokesman and senior adviser for the Maryland USA, did not respond to a request for further comment Wednesday on the poll.
Maryland USA is an independent expenditure Super PAC which, unlike candidate campaign committees, is allowed to accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. By law, Hoeber’s personal campaign committee, Amie Hoeber for Congress, is barred from coordinating its activities with Maryland USA.
But, in an unusual wrinkle, the sole donor to Maryland USA is Hoeber’s husband, Mark Epstein. Epstein, who made his fortune in telecommunications, pumped at least $2.1 million into Maryland USA during Hoeber’s winning primary bid.
While it is unlikely to rival the cost of the primary campaign in neighboring District 8, where businessman David Trone poured in nearly $13 million of his own fortune in an unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic nomination, Epstein’s wealth puts Hoeber in a position to remain financially competitive with Delaney. The latter, according to a recent analysis by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, is the third wealthiest member of the House of Representatives. He pumped $2.4 million of his personal wealth into the 2012 campaign, with another $900,000 spent in 2014.
Still under discussion, according to sources, is the degree of aid that the National Republican Congressional Committee—the campaign arm of the House GOP majority—will provide to Hoeber. That determination could pivot on how well, or poorly, the Trump presidential campaign fares, and the degree to which incumbent Republican House members require assistance as a result.
The Hoeber campaign is also clearly hoping Gov. Larry Hogan will hit the trail on the candidate’s behalf. If Hogan has been virtually invisible in Montgomery County—one of the few jurisdictions in the state that he lost in 2014—over the past 18 months, he remains highly popular in the Republican-leaning counties to the west that include nearly half of the 6th District’s voters.
Hogan is unlikely to need much coaxing to aid Hoeber: A loss or close call for Delaney this year could derail his apparent gubernatorial ambitions in 2018, when Hogan will be seeking to become the first Republican governor in almost 65 years to win a second term in Annapolis.