You know the Democrats are in trouble when Steny Hoyer hits the airwaves in his campaign to retain his seat in Congress. Hoyer, whose seat was generously drawn for him by Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, usually uses his campaign largesse to benefit his Democratic Party colleagues with little thought of himself.

That changed due to an aggressive campaign by first-time candidate Charles Lollar, who is making inroads into previous Hoyer strongholds in Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties.

Lollar, who served in the Marine Corps, is taking the same no-nonsense approach to going after the previously unassailable Hoyer that has earned the U.S. Marine Corps worldwide respect and, yes, a little bit of fear.

Steny, who famously bragged in past campaigns that he is a “tax, tax, spend, spend Democrat,” has, through the magic of political advertising, been transformed into a statesman whom the good people of the 5th congressional district of Maryland cannot do without.

Of course, Steny’s tenure as the No. 2 in Congress has been shaky at best. Unemployment has skyrocketed during his four years, the national debt has ballooned to unsustainable levels, and voters have demanded change for two election cycles in a row. In fact, Gallup found that Steny’s Congress would get excited about their dramatically higher popularity if they just could become as popular as big banks or organized labor.

Unfortunately for Steny, unlike in 2008, he is the target of the demand for change in 2010. Further, he isn’t getting to run against a tomato can, as Republicans nominated Lollar, whose fiery rhetoric has stirred passions not only in the Tea Party, but also among both the large veteran and African-American communities that Hoyer has traditionally depended upon for his victory margins.

Now Hoyer is forced to do something that he really hasn’t had to do much of since he faced Larry Hogan back in the late 1980s — connect with voters and ask to retain his job.

The truly interesting piece of the impact of Lollar’s aggressive campaign is that every dollar Hoyer spends to protect his seat is a dollar he isn’t spending helping Democrats in the almost 100 races around the country that have been identified as being in play.

Lollar’s impressive showing on national programs has given him some money to spend on media, and the more he spends, the more it takes away Steny’s ability to use his money trying to salvage suddenly vulnerable Democrat campaigns. Additionally, Hoyer is now stuck in the district for the remainder of the campaign, as opposed to making appearances for colleagues around the country.

Speculation in Maryland political circles is that Lollar is coming too close for Hoyer’s comfort in the polls, particularly with voter turnout models dramatically favoring traditionally Republican constituencies. So when I hear a Hoyer radio ad or see his new banner ads on the Internet, it tells me that Hoyer’s internal polling must be causing alarm bells to go off. Otherwise, he would be spending all of his money to try to help his fellow Democrats around the country.  

After all, when John Dingell is in trouble in his family seat in Michigan, the needs of congressional Democrats around the country are surely outstripping their resources, and it is the job of leadership to help fill the money gap in these races.

Like the Marine he is, Charles Lollar is keeping Hoyer pinned down in Maryland, rather than allowing him to ride to the rescue around the country. Win or lose, come Nov. 2, the country will owe Charles Lollar a gigantic thank-you for having the courage and willpower to run in a district where all the “smart” people said it was a waste of time. Sounds like just the kind of guy we need in Congress.

Rick Manning is a former town councilman in Chesapeake Beach, Md., a constituent of Steny Hoyer’s and the current communications director of Americans for Limited Government. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.