Hours after Gov. Martin O'Malley signed his controversial redistricting plan into law, potential candidates and powerful third-party groups began jockeying for position in the redrawn 6th District, which now stretches from the state's western border to the suburbs of Washington.
Not only will the race put Maryland in the national spotlight for the 2012 election, it will give state voters a hand in deciding the balance of power in Congress at a critical time for the U.S. economy. The district now held by 10-term Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett offers Democrats one of perhaps a dozen opportunities across the nation to increase their numbers.
The 6th District race has drawn the attention of many of the outside political groups that pumped cash into tight contests in the 2010 election, an indication that it could take millions of dollars to win.
That could pose a problem for Bartlett, who spent $367,000 over a two-year period to win re-election in 2010. In the past three months, his campaign took in a mere $1,000.
One Democratic consultant estimated that the 2012 race would cost $500,000 a week for television advertising alone.
"It is going to be like the Civil War," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, noting that one of America's most famous battlefields is located in the district. "It is going to be the North and South coming together right there in Antietam, battling all over again."
O'Malley, a Democrat, signed the map into law Thursday after a four-day special session of the General Assembly.
The 6th District previously spanned mostly rural, conservative enclaves from Garrett to Harford County. The district's new boundaries extend south into more suburban and Democratic-rich sections of Montgomery County.
Forty percent of the voters in the former 6th District cast ballots for Barack Obama for president in 2008, compared with 56 percent in the redrawn district.
The state's ruling Democrats drew the new congressional districts, a process required every decade to reflect population changes. Unless altered in court, the new map will govern Maryland elections to the House of Representatives for the next 10 years, starting with the April 3 primary.
The new 6th District is not necessary a slam dunk for Democrats — particularly given concerns over the economy and nose-diving poll numbers for Obama — but it nevertheless is a big opportunity.
"It's a prize," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "When you've got a seat like that that is switchable, you're going to have millions" spent on advertising.
After historic wins in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans enjoy a 50-seat advantage in the House.
Several voters in the district said they welcome the looming political contest but question the methods state leaders used to achieve it.
"It's fine to have a competitive race," said Alan McVay, a 58-year-old independent voter from Gaithersburg. "But I think the districts ought to correspond more to counties and municipalities and not to some arbitrary line."
A bevy of potential candidates from both parties is circling the district, including Democrat Doug Duncan, a former Montgomery County executive, and Duchy Trachtenberg, a former member of the Montgomery County Council. Trachtenberg is the only high-profile Democrat who has officially announced a run for the congressional seat.
Duncan did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
State Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, 39, is another potential candidate who could draw considerable support.