Maryland Republicans are seeking to find out just how much more competitive the state’s redrawn congressional districts are, with a handful of challengers competing for a chance to take on an eight-term Democratic incumbent in Central Maryland.

The former district was once described as “America’s most gerrymandered district” with a shape a federal judge said was “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state,” improbably weaving to encompass Olney, Odenton, Locust Point, Pikesville and Annapolis.

But following once-every-ten-years redistricting, the new 3rd District includes all of Howard County, the northern portion of Anne Arundel County and a sliver of Carroll County. Howard County votes reliably Democratic, but did elect a Republican county executive in 2014. Anne Arundel is a large swing county, breaking for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by just 1,500 votes in 2016. Gov. Larry Hogan won the county by almost 100,000 votes during his 2018 reelection.

The district has shifted from one that favored President Joe Biden by 40 percentage points in 2020 to one that would have chosen Biden by 26 percentage points, according to a Politico analysis. Republicans hope a favorable national political climate will close the gap further.

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“It’s a partisan legislature, they’re going to draw the districts in such a way that advantage[s] themselves. And so that’s essentially what Democrats were trying to do,” said Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown. An original, more Democratic-leaning plan was thrown out by a state judge. Deckman thinks Republicans can win if they dial in their campaign messaging.

The diverse cast of aspiring nominees in the primary are trying to do just that: thread the middle of the Venn diagram of Maryland’s right-leaning Republican primary voters and a solidly center-left general electorate.

Steve Crim, a consultant who helmed Larry Hogan’s successful Republican gubernatorial campaign in 2014, said that electoral victory coincided with deliberately nonpartisan messaging focused on what was good for Marylanders. “If I were running a campaign right now, I would run as close to Hogan as I possibly can,” he said, reflecting on the outgoing two-term governor’s enduring popularity.

“I think people are ready for an authentic candidate,” said Yuripzy Morgan, who leads the primary pack in fundraising, according to FEC reports as of June 29. “People disagree on all kinds of issues, but I think there are some practical issues like the economy, the education system,” she added, branding herself as a moderate Republican.

Morgan, 38, whose Mexican and El Salvadoran immigrant parents met in East Texas, practiced several types of law before an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District in 2016. She turned campaign-related appearances into a full-time gig hosting an eponymously named midday show on WBAL Radio starting in 2019. She left the radio station this year to focus on the primary.

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Morgan has some critiques of Republican policies of recent memory — the tariffs levied by the Trump administration, for one, flew in the face of the Republican ideals of small government that drew her to the party “when I turned 18 and started voting,” she said.

She does, however, support Republican resistance to COVID-related mask and vaccine mandates, and sees securing the southern U.S. border against illegal immigration as a priority. Comparing a “healthy” border situation to a sprinkler system, Morgan asked, “If we left the water hose on for two days straight … we would get a flood. With a barrier at the border we could create more legal immigration, then we could give more people the opportunity. We could have more workers in this country, but it would be controlled.”

With lessons learned from her 2016 effort, Morgan feels good about her chances in July. She said she didn’t realize how important fundraising would be last time, but this go-round her campaign finances are in better order. Her campaign had just shy of $112,975 in receipts at the end of June, FEC documents show, with just under $25,000 still on hand.

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Antonio Pitocco, the youngest challenger in the race at 26, has an origin story that rings familiar to many younger Marylanders. He lost his marketing job at a Nordstrom department store in Annapolis in the summer of 2020 when the location shuttered due to the pandemic.

“I had the opportunity to be like, ‘alright, what do I actually want to do?’” Pitocco said, which led him to his decision to pursue the nomination in his redrawn home district. “[Our representatives] are out of touch, they’re asleep at the wheel. I want to change that.”

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Pitocco’s campaign slogan is “A New Way Forward” — and some of his platforms are evocative of a new, more online right wing of the Republican party. In pursuit of secure elections, he advocates putting our elections on the blockchain, though he said he wouldn’t “sit here and tell you that I’m an expert on” cryptocurrency.

Additionally, amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 would curtail some of the powers given to big tech owners of “New Age town squares” that allow them to “censor free speech,” Pitocco said. Even when it comes to hate speech, “free speech is free speech” and is protected by the First Amendment, he said.

Other elements of his messaging harken back to the Republican Party’s oldest ideas. “I would consider myself an ‘America First’ Republican,” he said, a slogan used by American anti-interventionists during both World Wars. Likewise, Pitocco puts low taxes and small government high on his list of priorities.

Pitocco is more frank about his support for former president Trump than Morgan or his other primary opponents. Trump lost Howard and Anne Arundel counties in both 2016 and 2020.

”I supported President Trump in his election,” Pitocco said, “I think that there was definitely irregularities in the [2020] election… but we all watched Joe Biden get inaugurated.” Pitocco has tweeted how much better of a job Trump did than Biden is doing on many occasions.

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Maryland Republicans and Democrats agree democracy under threat, but the reasons differ

Pitocco has raised a little more than $32,000 for his campaign.

“It’s not about how many dollars you have in your bank account. It’s how many people show up and vote for you.”

Still, Pitocco believes his messaging and outreach can bridge divides and win over voters of all stripes.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Democrats and independents and Republicans who, they’re just kind of like, ‘we’re fed up with the status quo’ … they’re sick and tired of all the noise on the right and on the left,” he said. “A good representative represents everyone regardless of party.”

Amal Torres, an Air Force veteran and former Department of Defense contractor, is following the center track and distancing herself from the former president. “I’m an Amal Torres Republican,” she said. “Why don’t we find the best policies that work for our country?”

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Torres, who was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. when she was in elementary school, looks to Republican icons like Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and even some aspects of the George W. Bush presidency.

“Shortly after 9/11 … he addressed the nation, foreign policy aside, to unite the country and demonstrate that Americans need to come together and work together,” she said.

Even as many of her positions are nigh identical to those of other Republicans — more police funding and banning critical race theory (an academic concept about systemic racism that is not taught in the public schools, but some fear will be) in schools, to name a few — her views on international relations diverge significantly.

“We haven’t had a solid foreign policy since the Monroe Doctrine,” Torres said, referring to the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe, who warned European nations not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere, which he saw as under American influence.

“I think the Biden and Harris administration have shown a distinct inability for displaying a clear, effective end-state in whatever engagement that they partake in,” Torres said, acknowledging Bush’s open-ended war on terror. She added that the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and the deployment of 700 Special Forces personnel to Somalia this May illustrated this.

Torres’s campaign has raised $29,473 in campaign contributions, according to FEC filings, putting her roughly on par with Pitocco but well behind Morgan. This is compounded by the fact that, following the legislative redistricting, her Baltimore residence is no longer actually in her district.

“Some people chose to shift [districts] for political reasons, but I’m the kind of person once I start something, I finish it,” Torres said, as she started her campaign before the redistricting was finalized. She was quick to point out that the incumbent Sarbanes lives in Baltimore County, which is now farther outside of his district than Torres’s home in South Baltimore.

U.S. House candidates are not required to live in the district they represent.

Deckman believes that successful Maryland Republicans need to focus on the economy.

“[They’re] going to run on inflation, on crime rates going up in urban areas,” she said, adding that they would try to paint their opponents as “too far left” as well.

Both Pitocco’s and Morgan’s websites have these issues front and center. “Cutting crime” is the top line item on both sites, and both candidates support increasing police budgets.

The candidates don’t have identical platforms. Pitocco’s website has sections addressing environmental conservation, congressional term limits and the Second Amendment, while Morgan’s focuses instead on veterans’ benefits and energy independence.

But the biggest difference between Republicans in this primary, if not in policy proposals, comes down to the qualities of their messaging.

“Unfortunately, there’s this personal nature of our politics in recent years, and I don’t see it going away,” said Deckman. “What you’re going to hear is the Democrats’ nominee talking about the person on the Republican side as being too affiliated with Trump.”

This would be a more effective cudgel against Pitocco than any other candidate; Morgan and other challengers are more reluctant to reveal their support of, or opposition to, Donald Trump.

Crim thinks a successful Republican in Maryland will sidestep this issue by running on their own merits — and avoiding aligning themselves with controversial figures in national politics.

“It’s got to be about who the candidate is,” he said. “People need to walk into the polls saying, ‘you know what, that candidate reflects my values.’”

Two other Republican candidates, Thomas E. Harris and Joe Kelley, are also in the race, but could not be reached for comment. Harris, like Torres, also lives in Baltimore City and thus outside of the 3rd District, according to the Maryland Board of Elections website.

Sarbanes also faces two challengers in the Democratic primary: Army veteran and defense contractor Jake Pretot and applications engineer and progressive candidate Ben Beardsley.

Jon Meltzer is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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