On a recent evening at the Birdland Sports Bar on Belair Road, Kathy Szeliga was making her pitch to about 30 people, most of them already on board with her campaign.
“36 years ago, Mark and I eloped,” Szeliga said. “We had five dollars in our pocket, minimum wage jobs and no car.”
But they went on to start a construction business. Szeliga plans to use her ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ story to contrast herself with her opponent for Maryland’s open U.S. Senate seat, Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen.
“You know, Ivy League, privileged white guy versus, you know the blue collar small business owner,” Szeliga said.
Szeliga has a compelling life story that could resonate with voters, according to Melissa Deckman, who is a political science professor at Washington College. But Deckman doubts it will be enough to defeat Van Hollen, who is better known and has deeper pockets than Szeliga. Even though Governor Larry Hogan showed two years ago a Republican can win in blue Maryland. Deckman says it’s a different mix of voters in a Presidential election year.
Deckman said, “So you are going to have more minorities voting. You are going to have more younger voters. And they tend not to vote Republican.”
Also, Van Hollen is a prodigious fundraiser. In the last campaign finance report he had 1.8 million dollars on hand, nearly ten times what Szeliga had. And then, there’s Donald Trump. Szeliga says she will support the nominee of her party. But she says she’s not sure she will attend the GOP convention next month.
“I’ve also been very clear to call out when he’s wrong,” Szeliga said. “And that’s another opportunity I think for voters to say you know what, I’m independent.”
For example, Szeliga said it was insulting to all Americans for Trump to say a federal judge could not be impartial hearing a civil suit filed against him because the judge’s parents were born in Mexico. But Deckman says it might be wise for Szeliga to follow Governor Hogan’s lead and announce she will not support Trump.
Deckman said, “He is just completely off putting to most voters, frankly. Democrats, obviously. But those independents that she really needs to carry this election. And so if I were her, I would really probably be more likely to just distance myself like Larry Hogan. It’s a smarter strategy.”
Szeliga served as Congressman Andy Harris’s chief of staff when he was a state senator. In 2010 she ran for and won a seat in the House of Delegates, representing parts of Baltimore and Harford Counties. She currently is the Minority Whip. Szeliga says if she’s elected to the Senate, she will be able reach across the aisle and work with Democrats. But Delegate Dan Morhaim, a Democrat who has known Szeliga for years, is not so sure.
Morhaim said, “Kathy is a nice person but she also is a hard edged ideologue.”
One example Morhaim gives is gun control, and it’s an area where Szeliga and Van Hollen have deep differences.Van Hollen is a strong supporter of gun restrictions. Szeliga voted against legislation that, among other things, requires gun buyers to get fingerprinted and bans assault weapons in Maryland.
Back in April Szeliga handily won the Republican primary, defeating 13 other candidates. On the morning of the primary, Patrick Cassidy was lined up to vote at a Baltimore County precinct. And he was casting his ballot for Szeliga.
Cassidy said, “She seems like a down to earth woman, a person who has Maryland interests at heart. And also a person who is willing to compromise because we have a sore need for compromise in the Congress.”
But first, Szeliga needs to win in November. Tonight, Governor Hogan will lend his star power to a fundraiser for Szeliga in Queen Anne’s County. It’s a two-fer, as Szeliga hitches her wagon to the popular governor and raises much-needed cash.