Election Tests Republican Momentum in Maryland

By | November 6, 2006

Maryland voters will elect a new generation of state leaders Tuesday and also fill hundreds of legislative and local offices in an election that could be a test of the balance of power between the two political parties in a state long dominated by Democrats.

The state will have at least three new and younger officials as U.S. senator, comptroller and attorney general regardless of who wins those races, since there are no incumbents on the ballot. And except for Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is not up for election this year, it will be a clean sweep at the top levels of government if voters reject Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s bid for a second term and elect Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley as governor.

Leaders of both parties will be watching closely to see if Republicans, fighting against a national Democratic tide, can continue to make inroads in local and legislative races and move closer to being competitive with Maryland Democrats.

The big unknown in races from the top of the ticket on down was the impact at the state and local level of national dissatisfaction with President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress.

“I’ve got to believe the anti-Bush stuff is going to pay off for Democrats here in Maryland, as unpopular as Bush is,” said Donald Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The anti-Bush mood should especially help O’Malley and Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin in his Senate race with Republican Michael Steele, Norris said.

Matthew Crenson, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, also sees the national mood as a boon to Maryland Democratic candidates.

“The Republican malaise has trickled down to local politics,” he said.

Crenson noted that even though most polls show Ehrlich running second, they also show that most people like the incumbent governor. Many people who plan to vote against Ehrlich “aren’t going against him because they don’t like him. They are voting against him because they don’t like his party,” he said.

Despite Bush’s unpopularity, state and local races usually turn on local, not national issues, and there is no consensus on whether the national tide running in favor of Democrats will have enough impact in Maryland to influence the outcome of important races.

Democrats needed no outside help in two of the statewide races. Democrat Doug Gansler is expected to easily defeat Republican Scott Rolle in the race for attorney general, and Democrat Peter Franchot is heavily favored over Republican Anne McCarthy in the comptroller’s race.

But the outcome is much in doubt in the two marquee races for governor and Senate.

Polls generally showed Cardin and O’Malley running ahead of their opponents. But there were signs the race was tightening as election day approached, and leaders in both parties said the outcome would probably hinge on who does the best job of getting supporters to the polls.

It has been at least 20 years since Maryland saw the kind of change in top-level offices taking place this year. William Donald Schaefer was elected to his first term as governor in 1986, and voters chose Barbara Mikulski as a new U.S. senator and J. Joseph Curran as the new attorney general.

The change this year is the result of retirements by two longtime Democratic leaders — Curran and Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Franchot defeated Schaefer in the Democratic primary.

“You do have some sort of generational shift,” said Zach Messitte, political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He noted that Cardin, Steele, Franchot and Gansler are all younger than the men they hope to replace. O’Malley and Ehrlich are of the same generation, although the mayor is almost six years younger then the governor.

There is one island of stability in the electoral landscape. Seven incumbent members of Congress are expected to easily win re-election, with the only change coming in the 3rd Congressional District, where Cardin gave up his seat to run for Senate. That race is expected to be won by a familiar political name – John Sarbanes, son of the retiring U.S. senator.

The focus of the struggle for supremacy between the two parties will be the races for governor and the Senate, but leaders of the two parties will also be paying close attention to legislative races.

Republicans have steadily increased their numbers in the General Assembly over the last two decades by picking up seats in moderate-to-conservative districts. The GOP set a goal after the 2002 election of picking up five more Senate seats and 14 more House seats this year.

“Are they going to come even close to that? If they lose Ehrlich and or Steele, there’s the possibility they don’t pick up any seats in the legislature,” Messitte said.

“Then where does that leave the Republican Party? Are they pushing forward and making this a two-party state, or have they slid backward?” Messitte said. “That’s why so much seems to be riding for them on this election.”

Democrats are growing more confident that they will not lose ground this year.

“I’m almost certain there will be no net gain in terms of them picking up seats,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert. House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, says Democrats will hold their own or even gain a seat or two.

Republicans say they continue to aim for a gain of 14 seats in the House and five in the Senate, but aren’t predicting they will reach that goal.

“We are absolutely picking up seats. It’s a matter of where and how many,” said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.

The goal was set because if Ehrlich is elected to a second term, either five additional senators or 14 additional delegates would deprive Democrats of the votes they need to override gubernatorial vetoes, significantly strengthening the governor’s hand in dealing with the Democratic majority.

House Minority Leader George Edwards, who is expected to move up to the Senate next year, said he isn’t sure the party will reach its goal.

“But I do believe we will pick up some seats, which is still a positive step for the Republican Party.” Edwards said.

Voters also will be electing local officials everywhere except Baltimore, which has its city elections in off years. These races could give another indication of how the parties will fare in the future. While Republicans control most rural governments, Democrats are in charge in the six biggest jurisdictions. The city of Baltimore and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s serve as farm teams for the parties, producing candidates who go on to run higher offices.

With so many close races expected and with an unusually high number of absentee ballots this year, many candidates may go to bed election night not knowing whether they won or lost.

Four years ago, about 62,000 Marylanders cast absentee ballots. This year, with a new state law allowing anyone to vote absentee and with Ehrlich promoting use of absentee ballots in the wake of problems with voting in the primary election, the number of absentees could reach the neighborhood of 200,000. Local boards will not begin counting absentee ballots until Thursday, and the counting could easily carry over into Friday or even the following week.

And if the statewide races are close, the political parties and the campaigns are lining up teams of lawyers to observe the counting and prepare for potential legal challenges.

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