Van Hollen Ousts Morella
Democrats Abandon Popular Incumbent

By Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 6, 2002; Page A01

Democrats in Maryland's famously independent-minded 8th District came home yesterday, electing state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. to Congress and ending the 16-year reign of Republican Constance A. Morella in a show of partisan loyalty.

Van Hollen's win marks the end of an era for the liberal, majority Democratic district. For 16 of the last 20 elections, voters there have chosen a moderate Republican representative, and as this year's campaign wound to a close, Morella trusted them to once again put partisanship aside.

But in the end, neither the enormous personal popularity that earned "Connie" a first-name-only relationship with constituents nor an independent voting record that made her one of her party's most disloyal members were enough to overcome the "R" after her name. She was still loved, but she was no longer wanted.

Last night, the cadre of progressives who backed Van Hollen's candidacy with near-manic devotion cheered raucously as he claimed victory. Long-frustrated Democrats had thrown everything they had into the race, packing the district with more reliable party voters, showering it with money and attention and prodding people to the polls.

The national party targeted the seat as part of its strategy to take back control of the House. Though that failed yesterday, local Democrats reveled in their triumph. Van Hollen, 43, was one of the very few challengers in the country to defeat an incumbent member of Congress, despite the Republican White House investing considerable energy into helping Morella pull out one more win.

Van Hollen, whose fast-paced trajectory in the General Assembly made him one of the state party's brightest young stars, heaped praise upon Morella for serving the district "honorably and well. . . . This was not a vote against Congresswoman Morella. This was a vote in favor of a change in direction and a change in leadership."

As he concluded, the huge crowd of local and state Democrats at Indian Spring Country Club in Montgomery County clamored to reach him on stage. In their rush, they knocked over the blue-curtained stage backdrop, covered with Van Hollen posters.

The race's outcome reflects the increased isolation of moderates on both sides of the aisle as the parties and the nation have grown more politically polarized. Officeholders like Morella, with seats in districts that favor the opposition party, are now a rare breed.

Morella called Van Hollen to concede shortly before 11 p.m. and then left her Bethesda home to address a couple hundred supporters at the local fire and rescue squad headquarters. Her eyes were red and her voice hoarse, but she kept on smiling as she congratulated her opponent.

Then she essentially said farewell. "It has been a great privilege and an honor," she said. "I will always remember all of you in my heart."

Someone yelled out, "Class act," and everyone roared in agreement. Morella's staff wept.

The independent candidate in the race, Stephen Bassett, pulled few votes in the district, which spans portions of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Morella and Van Hollen agree on most issues, from abortion and gun control to the environment and Iraq. And so their race became something of a Rorschach test of the prosperous and highly educated 8th District: With a Republican president and the balance of power in Congress at stake, would voters' liberal priorities finally trump their willingness to cross party lines?

Over the past decade, Morella's support eroded to a low of 52 percent in 2000. In that year's presidential election{cedil} no Republican-represented district in the country gave Al Gore a higher vote percentage than Maryland's 8th -- and that was before the Democratic-led legislature stacked the odds even further against Morella during redistricting.

Morella responded aggressively, displaying a mettle few knew she possessed. She vowed not to let the "partisans" in Annapolis -- prime among them, her opponent -- thwart the will of voters with a backroom deal aimed at driving her from office.

Throughout the fall, both candidates pressed their cases with skill and buckets of money, making the contest one of the country's priciest House races and the most expensive in Maryland's history. They spent about $5.6 million wooing voters, and their parties threw in more than $3 million in television advertising alone.

Though one of the House's most liberal Republicans, Morella was forced for the first time to turn to the Republican establishment to raise money for the toughest fight of her career. Democrats seized on the fact that President Bush hosted a fundraiser for Morella, intensifying the drumbeat they have sounded for years: While Morella may vote the right way, she keeps conservatives in power.

In another first, Morella ran attack ads. Both she and the Republican Party used the words of other Democratic legislators to question Van Hollen's character and label him a quitter who abandoned his responsibilities during Maryland's budget crisis. She did everything to blur party distinctions, even portraying the liberal Van Hollen as the real Republican in the race.

She tried in the final weeks to tamp down the national import of the race, repeatedly citing political analysts who said that the House would remain in GOP control. A moderate Republican like herself, with access to the president and House leadership, would be more effective than a freshman Democrat, she argued.

Joan Kuchkuda, a retired Environmental Protection Agency employee who lives in Rockville, listened hard but ultimately voted for Van Hollen. "Regrettably," said the registered Democrat, always before a Morella supporter. "This is such an important race, with the Senate and the House at risk. You can't take a chance."

As it became clear that a sizable number of voters felt torn about abandoning her, the incumbent attempted to play off that guilt by reminding them of her years of service and asking them to vote their "conscience," not their party. On election eve, she stayed late at her campaign headquarters, calling previous Democratic backers in her own neighborhood who had been quoted in news stories as likely to switch to Van Hollen.

Winnie Soltz, an independent from Gaithersburg, wavered and then stayed with Morella, while her husband, a Democrat, cast his ballot for Van Hollen.

"They're both good," she said. "I hate to see either one of them lose."

In her challenger, Morella faced for the first time a lawmaker with a strong record on issues of import to the very same group of Democrats whom Morella needed, particularly women.

During the September primary, Van Hollen argued that there was a difference between merely voting the right way and his own record of leading the charge to increase funding for education, protect the Chesapeake Bay, require gun trigger locks and crack down on HMOs.

He was not national Democrats' favorite to win the nomination; their support went to Del. Mark K. Shriver, a member of the Kennedy political family. But Van Hollen mobilized an army of ardent grass-roots supporters to defeat the better-funded Shriver in a come-from-behind victory.

Heading into the general campaign, his camp was convinced that the same tactic would work against Morella: turn the race into a referendum on legislative effectiveness and use his progressive record in the state Senate to peel off groups that had traditionally endorsed Morella, such as the National Organization for Women.

To get that message out, the nearly broke Van Hollen needed to raise money fast. He quickly shored up the Democratic base, reaching out for help to his vanquished primary opponents, organized labor and the Democratic elite. He raised an astonishing $1.7 million in eight weeks, with former president Bill Clinton, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), and former vice president Gore among the big names.

Van Hollen sought at every turn to tie the independent Morella to her party. He would stand up to the White House and the conservative House leadership, he said, while Morella would owe them more than ever for the help she received in this campaign.

He also argued that Morella's support for the Bush administration's $1.4 trillion tax cut meant the country couldn't afford to pay for such priorities as a prescription drug benefit for seniors under Medicare.

But he refused to directly question her votes in television or radio ads, even when independent polls showed that her ads had produced a slight Morella edge. Worried that going negative against such a popular incumbent would backfire, he focused his battle over the airwaves on Republicans, not Morella.

At the same time, his campaign subtly suggested that Morella's attacks showed that she was no longer the woman voters had come to admire and that her shift should assuage any guilt voters might feel in abandoning her. And on Election Day, Van Hollen's grass-roots army traversed the district to rouse supporters; 2,183 volunteers knocked on 81,747 doors.

Marc Berk, 51, was a voter who returned to the party fold.

"I think her unexpected negative campaign made it much harder for me to overlook the fact that I'm a Democrat," the health policy researcher said after voting in Gaithersburg. "For years, I have overlooked it because she seemed so good. This year, she seemed like just another politician."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company