WASHINGTON – Despite an eleventh hour push from outside conservative groups pumping cash and advertising into his campaign, attorney David Fischer lost his 1st District primary bid in Maryland to six-term incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest Tuesday.
Final tallies indicate that Gilchrest, a moderate Republican, handily won the race 60 percent to 36 percent. A third candidate, Brad McClanahan, got 4 percent.
Unlike Gilchrest's past re-election races, this one drew national attention. His opponent was boosted in the last weeks by the anti-tax Club For Growth, which infused $180,000 in his coffers, as well as the National Rifle Association, which was mad at Gilchrest. Conversely, President Bush stepped up to endorse Gilchrest, as did the moderate Republican group, Main Street Partnership.
Because this is a predominantly Republican district, Gilchrest is likely to win the Nov. 5 election, where he faces Democrat Ann Tomlyn.
"The last four weeks were high-speed, full-time, seven days a week, long hours of campaigning," Gilchrest said after his victory.
Primary day was no different. Aside from the usual last-minute campaigning outside the polls, the Gilchrest campaign was answering charges that it was behind a series of "dirty" and "disgusting" phone calls to voters in the waning days of the campaign.
Fischer's campaign said it received 200 to 300 complaints from voters in Maryland's 1st District who say they have received phone calls in the last few days accusing Fischer of defending child pornographers and molesters in his law practice.
"It is the kind of message that a mother would not want their child to hear," complained David Talley, spokesman for the Fischer campaign, noting that several concerned mothers said they were calling the police about the calls because their young children had picked up the phone and had heard taped messages.
"Everyone is very angry at Gilchrest for doing this," he said.
But members of the Gilchrest campaign say they have no idea where the supposed calls came from and that the congressman spent the better part of the day Monday trying to track their origins, to no avail.
"I don’t know, it’s very odd, very odd," said Cathy Bassett, a Gilchrest spokeswoman. "You can’t track them."
She said both Verizon phone company and the Federal Communication Commission have been notified and are investigating the calls.
Gilchrest campaign spokesman Tony Caliguiri said, "something smells funny" because no one on the campaign who is on the regular Republican calling lists for that district, including the congressman, has received the call. They also find it strange that one of the automated calls ends with the Gilchrest campaign office number.
"We don’t believe they’re coming from someone who is out to help us," he said.
The Fischer campaign forwarded two transcripts, one described a man's voice talking about Fischer's defense of "a man who pled guilty of molesting a 14-year-old girl," and left Gilchrest's number as a way to encourage him to keep fighting against sexual predators "and the sleazy lawyers who represent them."
The other message is the voice of a woman accusing Fischer's law office of advertising its services directly to sex offenders. This one left Fischer's number behind for people to call with complaints.
Tommy Hopper, general consultant for the Fischer campaign, confirmed that the phone company was looking into the matter because it too had received enough complaints about the call to warrant an inquiry. But he believes that contrary to what Gilchrest’s office is saying, the calls are coming from someone or some group connected to his campaign.
"It’s an underhanded tactic," he said, noting that Gilchrest’s campaign, buckling under the pressure of what became an unexpectedly hot race, has gone "negative" in recent weeks -- a charge the congressman’s people flatly deny.
"I think that all of his last TV and radio ads have been very positive -- I don’t know what he is talking about," said Bassett.
Fischer’s record as a defense attorney has indeed been raised before, specifically regarding his defense of suspects accused of child molestation and child pornography. Hopper said out of the 3,000 cases Fischer’s firm has tackled in the last several years, six were related to those issues, and three were referred to his firm from an overburdened public defender’s office. One of the remaining defendants was acquitted of all charges after one hour of jury deliberation, he added.
"This just reflects badly on a congressman whose duty it is to uphold the Constitution," said Hopper.
Gilchrest's campaign said they do not attack the role of the defense attorney in handing out cases, but said Fischer is guilty of "hypocrisy" because he has called for stricter laws, but has in the past defended people's right to stay off the registry and child porn suspects.