Owing to the construction firm that she and her husband have owned and operated for the past three decades, state Delegate Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County—the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate this fall—regularly refers to herself as a “small business owner” on the campaign trail. Just as regularly, she characterizes her opponent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Kensington, as a “career politician.”
In a year in which voters often have exhibited enthusiasm for political outsiders, Szeliga called Van Hollen a “career politician” no less than three times within a 60-second span during a press conference last week. “America does not need someone whose entire career has focused on being a politician. We need more business people, more citizen-style legislators,” Szeliga said later during an interview in her Baltimore campaign headquarters. If elected to the Senate, she vows to serve no more than two terms.
Responded Van Hollen, who has held elected office in the Maryland General Assembly and the U.S. House for the past quarter of a century, “I think voters are much more interested in what policies and priorities candidates are fighting for than how long they’ve been fighting for them.”
Nonetheless, in a telephone interview, he pointedly added, “But I am pleased to have a long track record of fighting for issues that I think are priorities for the people of Maryland.”
That track record has placed Van Hollen firmly in his party’s liberal wing, often in leadership positions, on a host of economic and social issues. As he runs this fall for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, he is seeking to paint Szeliga—who has racked up a staunchly conservative voting record in six years in the House of Delegates, where she now serves as minority whip—as being at odds with the political mainstream in predominantly Democratic Maryland. By the same token, Szeliga—binding herself politically to popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan—is decrying Van Hollen as “outside the norm on a lot of issues as you travel across the state.”
In what is likely to be their only joint appearance in Montgomery County between now and Election Day, Szeliga and Van Hollen will appear Saturday at a forum at the Montgomery College Germantown campus sponsored by AARP and the National Association of Active and Retired Federal Employees. The candidates will be questioned in back-to-back sessions at the forum; they have agreed to only two face-to-face debates, one on a Baltimore TV station in late October and the other slated for Oct. 7 on WAMU radio in Washington.
With a 55-26 percent lead in an independent poll released last week, Van Hollen has little incentive to appear at venues that could help to raise the profile of his underdog opponent—particularly in the Washington suburbs, where he is both well-known and highly popular after representing much of Montgomery County for the past 14 years. For her part, Szeliga professed not to be fazed by the poll results. “This is exactly where Larry Hogan was two years ago,” she told reporters shortly after the poll’s release.
There’s a bit of election season spin in that claim: As The Baltimore Sun quickly pointed out, Hogan was never behind Democratic opponent Anthony Brown by more than 18 points in 2014 polling, and had closed the gap to single digits by early October.
Part of Szeliga’s problem appears to lie with the top of this year’s ticket: Last week’s poll showed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump behind in Maryland by nearly 30 points. While repeatedly mentioning Hogan, Szeliga goes out of her way in public appearances not to mention Trump—although, unlike Hogan, she plans to vote for Trump.
“I have said consistently, since I filed for U.S. Senate, that I would support our party’s nominee,” Szeliga said. Trump “was not my first pick” for the nomination, she said, declaring, “I am an independent thinker. I have criticized him.”
Notwithstanding her underdog status in a state that has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1980, there are few in either party who underestimate Szeliga, 54, or her long-term political future.
If there is an ideological gulf between her and Van Hollen, 57, on virtually every major issue in this year’s election, Szeliga shares several of Van Hollen’s personal attributes: Both are regularly described by those who know them as highly likable, hard-working, and politically savvy.
Describing herself as an “Army brat” whose family was constantly on the move, Szeliga met her husband in Ocean City after graduating from high school, and eloped early in her freshman year in college. “When I go to high school graduations, I’ll say ‘Be careful what you do in Ocean City. You could come home with a husband, like me,’ ” she chuckled during last week’s interview. “That’s more pointed at the parents.”
After seven years in Colorado, Szeliga and her husband, Mark, moved back to Maryland—she is a Baltimore native—and started a business rehabilitating residences and doing commercial construction. She went back to college to earn a degree in education, and taught briefly in the Baltimore city schools. Concern about the content of standardized tests led to lobbying in Annapolis. Notwithstanding digs at Van Hollen’s resume, Szeliga has been immersed in politics for much of the past two decades—as a part-time aide to a couple of state legislators, and later as chief of staff to now-Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., before her 2010 election to the Maryland House.
This year, Trump is not the only factor encumbering Szeliga that Hogan did not have to deal with in his upset 2014 victory. Hogan never held elected office before winning the governorship, and had no voting record—allowing him to sidestep a host of social initiatives passed by the General Assembly and popular among a state electorate that is 2-1 Democratic. Szeliga does have such a voting record, and Van Hollen and his campaign have not been shy about calling attention to it.
Szeliga voted against same-sex marriage legislation in 2012; passage of that bill in Annapolis was upheld in a voter referendum that year. “I respect the ballot,” said Szeliga, adding that the same-sex marriage issue has been “settled…[it’s] not coming back up.”
A year later, in 2013, Szeliga voted against a sweeping gun control measure that cleared the legislature. In her current campaign, she argues additional gun laws are not needed. “We have a background check system that doesn’t work—I think we need to fix the system we have,” she contended. “We have laws on the books, yet our judges and prosecutors are letting these violent people back into our neighborhoods.” Van Hollen is a long-time advocate of stricter gun laws who is pushing to close what he termed a “huge loophole nationally” that allows sales at gun shows without a background check: He cited a $1,000 donation that Szeliga recently received from the National Rifle Association’s political arm.
Few issues elicit more vituperation from the two candidates than abortion. Asked whether she is anti-abortion, Szeliga replied, “No, I’m not. I’m pro-life.” Pointing to her background as a foster parent, she added, “I want to promote a culture of life. I believe that life is very precious, and it’s a gift from God.” She pointed to Van Hollen’s votes in Congress against several proposals pushed by abortion opponents, including criminalizing the killing of an unborn child in the commission of another crime. “He voted against a ban on cloning—human cloning,” Szeliga declared. “We do have very distinct views on this issue, but I believe he’s the one with the extreme view.”
Asked about his votes, Van Hollen said he needed to look back at the bills in question, which were proposed during his first term in Congress in 2003-04. He pointed to his initial election to the Maryland House in 1990 as part of a slate called the “Choice Team,” which advocated changes in state law to bring it into line with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. “I think that’s important because Szeliga is an anti-choice candidate,” he charged. “My opponent wants to turn back the clock on a woman’s right to choose.”
Asked whether she would back a constitutional amendment to roll back Roe v. Wade if elected, Szeliga contended there had not been a major effort along that line in recent years. “That’s a Magic 8 ball question,” she declared. “Let’s see what it looks like.”
Copying a page from Hogan’s 2014 playbook, Szeliga is trying to turn the conversation to the economy. Van Hollen “can talk all he wants about how we’re going to create jobs in Maryland and how we’re going to get the economy going, but his voting record shows that his ideas just work against those kind of things,” she contended, citing his low voting scores from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
She has repeatedly accused Van Hollen of voting to raise taxes “on nearly 80 percent of Americans,” a charge Van Hollen called “a total fabrication” that’s “the unfortunate sign of a desperate opponent.” The charge is based on Van Hollen’s vote on a bill at the end of 2012 that raised rates on the wealthiest taxpayers—those making $400,000 or more—while keeping in place lower rates on middle-income Americans enacted a decade earlier and due to expire.
An independent research group found at the time that the legislation Van Hollen supported would mean reduced paychecks for about 77 percent of Americans—due not to an increase in tax rates but rather the expiration of a two-year payroll tax holiday. The latter was enacted in the wake of the Great Recession to give workers a temporary break from Social Security taxes.
There’s little common ground between the candidates on other economic issues as well.
Nationally, Van Hollen wants to phase in an increase in the hourly minimum wage to $15 from its current $7.25 level. “We have a shameful situation where an individual working full-time at the current minimum wage is below the federal poverty line for a family of two,” he said.
Szeliga, who voted against an increase in the Maryland minimum wage to $10.10 in 2014, opposes an increase in the current minimum wage. She recounted her experience when first married, working as a hotel maid at minimum wage before moving up to run the housekeeping department and then the reservations department.
“The best jobs training program is a job,” she said. “When you prohibit people from getting on the career ladder, then you are killing jobs…If we have people living on minimum wage who are independent or single parents, I would rather get that single mom a job-training program.”
If Szeliga’s views may be at odds with many voters in Democratic strongholds such as Montgomery County—to which her campaign said she has made around 20 visits since January—she is hoping her gender may give her a boost. She often reminds audiences that, with the retirement of Mikulski, there is a chance the state congressional delegation could be without a female member come 2017.
“I never tell people to vote for me because I’m a woman,” she said. “But I would say that women largely agree on a lot of challenges that working moms have, that working women have. The super party line Democrat woman is always going to be that person, and the super party line Republican woman is always going to be that. But most of us are somewhere in the middle.”