Despite months of speculation that he would retire, Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett is instead gearing up for a tough re-election campaign that will be among the most closely watched in the nation.
Bartlett, the 85-year-old incumbent who is seeking an 11th term in Congress, has stepped up fundraising, hired a political consultant who previously worked for conservative Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign and has cleared the field of two potential challengers, including a former top aide.
His standing, though still precarious, is more solid than it was just a few months ago, when state Democrats redrew the 6th District to include a wide swath of Democrat-rich Montgomery County.
"I, like everyone else, had my doubts," said Larry Helminiak, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Carroll County, who received a phone call from Bartlett recently seeking a campaign donation. Helminiak, who has known Bartlett for years, said he's now "100 percent" certain the congressman is running again.
And so Helminiak forked over the money.
In all, Bartlett is expected to report raising about $160,000 in the final three months of 2011, campaign aides have said. That's a significant bump from the previous quarter, when he pulled in just $1,000 despite indications at the time that his district would become vulnerable for Republicans under the once-in-a-decade redistricting.
The haul is not overwhelming, though, particularly for an incumbent in a potentially competitive race. State Sen. Rob Garagiola, who is aggressively campaigning for the Democratic nomination, raised $330,000 in the same period, his campaign has said.
But Bartlett appears to be making some progress building a campaign apparatus. He has hired Bob Wickers, a respected California-based political consultant. Wickers produced a prominent television ad for Huckabee in 2008 that featured actor Chuck Norris, and he helped steer Republican Robert Bentley's successful 2010 gubernatorial campaign in Alabama.
Wickers said he expects Bartlett's campaign staff will be in place in the coming days, including a manager and fundraiser. "His intention was always to run," Wickers said of Bartlett, adding that the congressman "fits perfectly" with the type of overlooked candidates his firm has helped win elsewhere.
A spokesman for Garagiola's campaign declined to comment.
The 6th District will likely offer the state's highest-profile race of the 2012 election, especially now that Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards will avoid a potentially bruising primary in the 4th District. Former Prince George's County prosecutor Glenn Ivey, who had raised about $160,000 for a run against Edwards, pulled out of the race Wednesday.
"We projected out how much we could raise on the track that we were on and realized that we couldn't raise enough to win," Ivey said. "I knew what I had to do, and I didn't get it done."
The state's primary is April 3.
Meanwhile, a handful of candidates in other races arrived at the State Board of Elections to file to put their names on the ballot Wednesday, the last day to do so. Candidates have until Friday to withdraw their names from the ballot.
Republican Del. Richard K. Impallaria of Harford County filed for the Republican nomination in the 2nd District. The seat is currently held by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Other GOP candidates in that race include state Sen. Nancy C. Jacobs and Larry Smith, a former aide to 1st District Rep. Andy Harris.
In the 6th District, Republican Del. Kathy Afzali announced earlier in the week that she will challenge Bartlett in the primary. State Sen. David Brinkley is also seeking the GOP nomination.
Other candidates have gotten out of the race in recent days. Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney, who had explored running for the seat, said he will not be a candidate now that he is convinced Bartlett is.
Mooney had been criticized by some in his party for raising about $100,000 for a potential run at a time when Bartlett struggled in his own fundraising. In an interview, Mooney urged the state's Republicans to coalesce around Bartlett.
"If he's going to run, and as long as he votes conservative, I don't really see the need to run," Mooney said. "If Roscoe has a team around him helping him to raise money, then I think he'll be well-funded."
Mooney said that he met with Bartlett and informed him of his intention to form an exploratory committee in November. That was around the same time the congressman's former chief of staff and top campaign aide, Bud Otis, was reportedly securing support for his own candidacy in case Bartlett decided not to run.
Otis called Bartlett this week to tell his former boss that he would not pursue the seat.
"If he's running and he's going to serve the full two years, then he's got my full support," Otis said.