Maryland candidate filing deadline creates last-second drama

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Veteran U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) got a few new challengers Friday, including — briefly — one he definitely did not want.

Friday’s candidate filing deadline, already pushed back twice due to now-settled litigation over congressional and legislative district boundaries, featured plenty of frenzied, last-minute activity — including drama and confusion in the final seconds over a legislative district in Montgomery County, which could hand Republicans their first victory in the county in 20 years.

The top-line news is that three credible Republicans have filed to seek the GOP nomination in Ruppersberger’s 2nd District, led by Nicolee Ambrose, who has spent the past decade as Maryland’s Republican National Committeewoman. The district has become considerably more competitive under the state’s new congressional district map.

But there were significant and surprising last-minute developments in other races, including:

  • House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), who has served in Annapolis since 1995, withdrew from his re-election race in the 45th District.
  • House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) decided against running for Congress in the 6th District, despite a recent poll showing him competitive with U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D). He’ll seek another term in the House.
  • Del. Jay Jalisi (D-Baltimore County) joined a crowded state Senate primary in the 10th District, which puts him on a collision course with Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr. (D), the hand-picked choice of departing Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D), who also represents the district.
  • Four-term Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) withdrew from his re-election bid in the 18th District and will seek a seat on the Montgomery County Council instead. His decision, which he did not share with any of the other elected officials in District 18 ahead of time, sparked desperate, last-minute efforts to replace him on the ballot, which may fall short or wind up in litigation.
  • Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D), who represents a district seat on the council, withdrew from the Democratic primary for county executive and will seek an at-large seat on the council instead.
  • Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) chose not to run for re-election and did not file to run for any other office.

In the 2nd congressional district, Ambrose instantly becomes a frontline contender. A businesswoman, former opera singer and regular commentator on Fox News Radio, Ambrose has a wealth of contacts in Republican circles, strong ties to the Trump wing of the GOP, but also cordial relations with most of the establishment wing of the party as well.

Even with Ambrose’s entry into the race, perhaps the biggest intrigue in the 2nd District occurred early Friday afternoon, when the website of the Maryland State Board of Elections, which was being updated every few minutes to reflect new candidate filings, showed Ruppersberger’s Democratic colleague, Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D), also filed to run in the 2nd District.

Since the state’s new congressional map was signed into law early last week, there has been some speculation that Sarbanes would prefer to run in the 2nd District, where his Towson home is now situated, rather than in the 3rd District, which he currently represents — and that Ruppersberger, who is 76 years old and was first elected to Congress in 2002, might retire. A Sarbanes switch to the 2nd District would have created a vacancy in the 3rd District, which now includes all of Howard County, most of Anne Arundel County, and a sliver of Carroll County.

So politicians, operatives and political analysts were scrambling to figure out what was going on — no doubt causing some political leaders palpitations as they calculated whether they ought to make a last-second run for Congress.

But it turned out to be a technical glitch on the elections board’s website. Sarbanes was automatically listed in the other race when the board undertook a process to move candidates into the right districts online when redistricting maps were finalized.

While congressional candidates can run for any district in the state in which they live, legislative candidates must live in the district where they seek election. In a redistricting year, those candidates will have until May 8 to establish residency to run in the November general election.

Candidates who were automatically moved from one race to another online have until Monday to withdraw from the primary ballot.

On Friday, Sarbanes filled out a form affirming that he understood he was seeking election in a district where he does not live — ending approximately two hours of confusion on the election agency’s website.

According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com, the newly-drawn 2nd District, which includes most of Baltimore County and a sliver of Baltimore City, has a D+11 rating, which still favors Democrats. But it has several conservative areas and working class Democratic precincts, and Ruppersberger last faced a competitive race there 20 years ago, which adds to his potential vulnerability. He did, however, report a formidable $1,334,147 in his campaign account as of March 31.

And Ambrose does not have the Republican field to herself. Seven Republicans are now filed in the 2nd District, and the field includes two other credible contenders: Michael A. Geppi, a former Harford County councilmember who is a former tech executive and business consultant and served as deputy Health secretary in the Hogan administration; and Ellen “EJ” McNulty, a public health policy professional who also worked for the Hogan administration and has close ties to an array of Baltimore County Republicans of different ideological stripes.

McNulty plans to lean in on her status as an anti-Trump candidate in the GOP race. She’s hired Jim Dornan, the campaign manager for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey during her 1998 gubernatorial bid, to helm her campaign. Earlier this election cycle, Dornan was guiding the exploratory effort of former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele as he pondered a run for governor.

6th congressional district: You’ve got to know when to Foldi

Buckel’s decision not to seek the Republican nomination leaves his colleague, Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), who was the 2020 challenger to Trone, the likely frontrunner in the GOP scrum. But national Republican leaders were clearly pressuring Buckel to run.

“While the data demonstrated that I had a real pathway to victory and was perhaps the Republican best-situated to win in a highly-competitive ‘purple’ district, the timing simply just isn’t right for me personally, professionally or politically,” Buckel said in statement to Maryland Matters.

The 6th District, which takes in part of Montgomery County plus all of Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, is an R+1 district, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. But Trone’s personal wealth makes the race a daunting challenge for almost any Republican.

There was one late Republican entry into the race Friday: Matthew Foldi, a provocative writer with the conservative website The Washington Free Beacon. In an article published Friday in the Free Beacon, the editor, Eliana Johnson said Foldi, who resigned from the publication, would be missed.

“His unrefrigerated bottle of sriracha will be missed,” Johnson said. “Foldi may not be able to clean his desk, but we trust he would do a better job cleaning up Congress.”

Branch hangs it up

A little after 7 p.m. Friday, House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) left the State Board of Elections after withdrawing his candidacy.

“It was time,” the 66-year-old lawmaker said, noting his 28-year tenure in the House of Delegates.

“I feel like my district will be in good hands,” he said, referencing the other District 45 incumbents, who include his daughter, Del. Chanel Branch (D).

“She’s shown and proven and demonstrated her ability to lead and be a good legislator,” he said.

Branch plans to stay in the Baltimore area and build on a consulting business. He does not plan to endorse a third delegate candidate in the district.

Montgomery County wrinkle #1

Hucker’s decision to get out of the five-way Democratic primary for county executive was an acknowledgement that his candidacy wasn’t gaining traction. And his decision to join the county council at-large race comes as one of the leading contenders, Brandy Brooks, has temporarily suspended her campaign over accusations that she created a hostile work environment for the campaign staff.

In an interview, Hucker cited the challenge of running against an incumbent, Marc Elrich, and a wealthy businessman, David Blair, in the Democratic primary.

“Any time you run against a multi-millionaire and an incumbent with so many county staff promoting everything he does daily, it’s a challenge,” Hucker said, “especially with the dearth of local media that we have.”

A former state delegate, Hucker has represented District 5, the Silver Spring/Takoma Park area, on the council since 2014. He served as president last year. Immediately after withdrawing from the race for executive, he filed to run for an at-large seat on the Council.

“Our schools are in crisis and we have widespread mental health needs,” he said. “And everything I know now leads me to believe the best way I could contribute to addressing them is continuing to play a leadership role on the new council.”

Montgomery County voters will elect four at-large councilmembers this year who are chosen countywide. Three at-large incumbents are seeking re-election: Gabriel Albornoz, Evan Glass and William Jawando, all Democrats. Whether Hucker, who has been elected twice to a district seat, will be viewed as the fourth incumbent in the countywide Democratic primary remains to be seen.

The other contenders are: Brooks; Dana E. Gassaway, who unsuccessfully sought a council seat in 2006; Scott Goldberg, the former chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee; and former Gaithersburg City Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles.

Montgomery County wrinkle #2

There was last-minute drama at the State Board of Elections office in Annapolis after Carr’s decision to withdraw from the District 18 House race earlier in the day — without, apparently, telling any of his District 18 colleagues.

Around 9 p.m., two candidates from the district were both at the office: Ardy Kamali, an aide to Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D) who said he had stopped by the office to watch what was happening, and Joel Rubin, a Democratic foreign policy expert who has served five years on the Chevy Chase Town Council.

Kamali, who was inside the state board’s filing office at 8:59 p.m. when there was still a looming vacancy in the district, began filling out paperwork. Rubin arrived mere seconds — maybe a minute or two later — and was stuck in the building’s lobby, unable to enter the now-locked filing area.

The two men, visible to each other through the glass-paneled office, were fielding phone calls from high-level county legislators, including Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D) and Waldstreicher.

In the end, despite starting the paperwork to file just in the nick of time, Kamali was unable to complete the process because a campaign’s statement of organization requires a wet signature from a treasurer (he had been able to press someone into that role during a last-minute phone call, but they weren’t at the state office with him).

Kamali declined to comment after leaving the office without completing the paperwork required to get on the ballot.

Now, the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee may play a role in getting a third Democrat on the ballot in the race.

State law allows a central committee to fill a vacancy for candidacy in a race “because of the withdrawal of an unopposed candidate or because no candidate filed for the office.”

What is unclear is whether, in a three-member district like District 18, there is a clear vacancy, because two Democrats — incumbent Dels. Emily Shetty and Jared Solomon — had filed by the deadline, as had one Republican, George M. Cecala.

The district, which includes parts of Chevy Chase, Kensington and Wheaton, leans heavily Democratic. Registration in the 2020 presidential election was 66% Democrat and 13% Republican.

Rubin said after the state office closed for the night that he will pursue candidacy through the central committee, calling this an “important moment for our country and democracy.”

“I care deeply about the county and where we are now,” he said, in a brief interview.

Rubin, who placed fifth in the race for delegate in 2018 and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2016, said he’d been interested in the seat, but didn’t want to run to unseat any of the incumbents so hadn’t considered filing until Carr’s withdrawal.

The deadline for the central committee to attempt to fill a vacancy on the ballot would be Wednesday.

Carr, meanwhile, is running for the newly drawn 4th district seat on the County Council, which extends like a bow tie from Takoma Park to North Bethesda. Carr joins four other Democrats in the race, including Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart.

In an email to supporters Friday night, Carr, a member of the Kensington Town Council before being elected to the legislature, wrote, “After serving for 15 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, I am returning to my roots in local government.”

But he may not have endeared himself to fellow Democrats by possibly jeopardizing a seat that should be easily winnable in the House. No Republican has won a single office in Montgomery County since 2002.

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.

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