Republicans often find comfort in the suburbs. But for long-time Maryland congressman Roscoe Bartlett, having a slice of Washington, D.C. suburbia added to his district means the biggest fight of his life. He now faces a tough challenge from Democrat John Delaney, the founder of a successful commercial lender company.
Voters first elected Bartlett to Congress in 1992. He spent many years before that working as a scientist and engineer, designing life support equipment now used by the U.S. government. The congressman enjoys an eccentric reputation. Bartlett is a survivalist, meaning he prepares to live self-sufficiently in the event of widespread disaster.
Now 86 years old, he serves in a district that used to span from the western reaches of Maryland to the east, hugging the Pennsylvania border. He resides on his farm near Frederick, Maryland. Much of the district comprises rural, conservative voters, who easily return him to Washington year after year. But Maryland’s recent redistricting added 350,000 new suburban voters into his district from Montgomery County just outside of Washington, D.C. The district is now less Republican, giving the Democrats a 40,000 person registration advantage. This may make him the most vulnerable Republican House incumbent this cycle.
Democrats in Maryland hope the new district will squeeze Bartlett out of his seat, leaving only one Republican congressman in the state.
Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, called the redistricting job “raw politics at its best.” It reminded him of former congresswoman Connie Morello’s redistricting challenge. She represented the liberal 8th Congressional District near Washington, D.C., managing to hold onto her seat for 16 years by bucking the Republican party on many issues. But after the 2000 census, state Democrats redrew the lines, allowing up-and-comer Chris van Hollen to take the seat in 2002.
Bartlett also has an independent streak that may appeal to the new constituents. “I hope that people recognize that I do reach across the aisle, that I try to vote what’s best for my kids, my district, my country, and that may not always be the way my party would like me to vote,” Bartlett told me. The National Journal ranked him as the 209th most conservative member of congress in 2011, well in the middle of the 435 person House of Representatives.
Stephanie Cooper, deputy finance director of the Maryland GOP, vouched for his independence. “His positions on the environment differ a lot from the party so I think he’s trying to get that message out,” she said. Bartlett advocates strongly for renewable energy and warns about the negative effects of oil production declines.
The congressman is also a solid fiscal hawk. For spending increases, Bartlett asks himself, “Is the temporary good we might get from this to solve a problem which we caused…worth burdening future generations, some of them yet to be born?” He voted against the stimulus, TARP, and many other spending increases of the last few years.
“Residents of Montgomery county don’t think they’re taxed enough,” according to Summers. While fiscal conservatism may play well in the old part of the district, the new part contains many government employees and contractors whose jobs depend on government spending.
Jeanette Radford, second vice chair for the Montgomery County Republican Party, explained the approach fiscal conservatives often take when appealing to federal employees. “They don’t really want to talk about cutting the government,” she stated, “typically the line they take is accountability, which everyone tends to agree with.” When asked about the influx of federal employees now in his district, Bartlett responded, “I served as a government employee for 6 years, so I’m very supportive of government employees.”
The new part of the district brings other challenges as well. Radford called Montgomery County “transient” because so many people move in and out. Cooper also noted that Bartlett’s pro-life stance comes up as an issue of contention for many voters.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted the seat for their Patriots Program. According to Nat Sillin, spokesman for the NRCC, they have already spent $78,000 in coordinated funds on behalf of Bartlett. But Sillin also stated, “This race will be decided by getting to know voters in the new part of the district.”
Bartlett has been attending events in the district and has also been helped by grassroots volunteers. Kari Snyder, the director of the Montgomery County GOP Victory Office, noted that they have made 125,000 voter contacts in the county.
Both campaigns have taken to the airwaves, but in a media market like Washington, D.C., that can be quite expensive. Delaney has raised over $3.5 million, over half of that through self-financing. Bartlett has raised just over $1 million for this cycle.
Bartlett has not gone without criticism. Some claim he hasn’t been visible or active enough on the campaign trail. Also, in early September, Bartlett compared the unconstitutionality of student loans to the path that led to the Holocaust. He since apologized for the comments. Cooper, who has made over 2,000 calls to voters in Montgomery County, mentioned that no one on the calls ever brought up the Holocaust comments.
On October 24, former congressman Gene Taylor, a Democrat, endorsed Bartlett. He stated, “Roscoe Bartlett is the type of leader that puts partisan labels aside and does what is best for the country and his district.” The congressman and his campaign hopes this kind of message, one of bipartisanship, can reach constituents both old and new.
Kyle Huwa is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.