By BRIAN WITTE
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and his Republican opponent Dan Bongino face an unusual challenge this year: Rob Sobhani, a self- funded independent who has elbowed his way into the Maryland Senate race by spending more than $4 million of his own money in a contest he entered just last month.
Sobhani, an entrepreneur and former Republican, got a big jump in television advertising ahead of the two main party candidates. It's an unfamiliar scenario in Maryland, especially for a Democratic incumbent in a state where Democrats outnumber GOP voters 2-1 in voter registration. Cardin said last week he had not expected so much spending on the general election.
"I can't match Mr. Sobhani in his money," Cardin said in a recent interview. "He's already put out $3.2 million in the first, I think, four weeks for ads. We didn't plan a budget for that type of money. We didn't think that's necessary. We still don't think it's necessary, so we are right on target."
Cardin, who didn't air his first television advertisement for the general election until this month, noted that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision prevents a candidate from increasing contribution limits, even while running against a wealthy opponent who is not limited in what he or she can spend from a personal fortune.
"It's one of the problems in our campaign laws _ that a wealthy person could enter the race at any time and spend an unlimited amount of funds," Cardin said. "But, you know, I think the voters of Maryland will judge us on our records, so we were prepared whether there was one, two or three candidates running against us, and so we feel like our message is getting out there."
Bongino, a former U.S. Secret Service agent, reports his best fundraising quarter to date, yet he only released his first television ad for the general election this month. He said he will be more aggressive in coming weeks with more ads _ but he conceded his campaign war chest does not equal those of his opponents.
Bongino has raised about $1.2 million, compared to Cardin, who has raised about $6.3 million so far over the six-year cycle. Cardin has about $2 million on hand.
Sam Patten, a spokesman for Sobhani's campaign, said Sobhani will report about $4.5 million in the next reporting period with the Federal Election Commission.
Bongino, who also has been a small business owner, says his middle-class background makes him more sensitive to the difficulties voters are experiencing.
"I'm just a guy who got fed up with the system, and I want them to just please contrast that without the party labels _ with these two opponents _ and say to yourself who really represents you and who's really going to D.C. to shake up the nest or who's going there either for self-interest or political interest," Bongino said. He is hoping support at the grassroots level will help boost him.
Sobhani needed 37,000 certified signatures of voters to get on the ballot and ended up with about 55,000. He said his background in foreign policy, in business and as an academic, as well as his ability to speak Farsi, Turkish and French, enables him to bring unique experience to the Senate. He believes that's the best place for him to begin serving as an elected official and help his state.
"The higher the profile, the greater the ability to influence," Sobhani said.
Sobhani describes himself as an entrepreneur and problem solver for businesses overseas that can benefit from the services of businesses in the United States.
"I form a partnership, and together we go overseas, we sign the contract and I make a profit off of that," Sobhani said.
Sobhani, who has run unsuccessfully for Senate twice before, says his tax returns can show zero income in some years. In other years, he says, they show "a few million."
"This year, I was blessed," Sobhani said. "I got lucky, and I said to myself, I can use this money to go buy a second, third, home or whatever or I could plow it into the passion of public service and becoming a United States senator."
Sobhani says he would get companies and nonprofits to make Maryland investments in fields such as creating internships for low-income youth and investing in fighting cancer. He says he also would get businesses in Maryland to sign a billion dollars in contracts to compete better in exports.