Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, who entered the race as the heavy favorite, ended it last night by trailing Republican rival Charles I. Ecker by 244 votes with more than 1,800 absentee ballots still to be counted.
With her well-organized troops and hefty bankroll, the 46-year-old Columbia-area resident had been expected to win easily -- until a last-minute poll showed Mr. Ecker almost even with her.
Last night, results from all precincts showed Mr. Ecker edging out Ms. Bobo. But with the thin margin, the outcome will be uncertain until the absentee ballots are counted tomorrow. Mr. Ecker was cautious last night about claiming victory: "We're only ahead by several hundred votes, so let's wait until Thursday to celebrate."
Ms. Bobo, too, said there would be no concession until tomorrow's count. Last night's tally showed 25,637 votes for Mr. Ecker, 25,393 for Ms. Bobo. But whatever the final result in that race, the election showed dramatic Republican gains in the affluent county, where GOP gains in voter registration cut in half a 2-to-1 Democratic margin.
Republicans captured a second of five council seats and came close to winning a third. GOP candidates also won the clerk of the court post from an entrenched Democratic incumbent, as well as two of three seats on the orphan's court.
In the General Assembly races, two incumbent Democratic delegates were defeated and an incumbent senator trailed his Republican challenger.
Mr. Ecker, 61, said last night that door-to-door campaigning combined with dissatisfaction over possible tax increases, crowded schools and rapid growth in the county led to his success at the polls: "There was a lot of sentiment for getting rid of the incumbents and that didn't hurt," Mr. Ecker added. In addition, gains in Republican voter registration aided Mr. Ecker.
"I think what you're seeing is a very strong Republican step forward in Howard County," said Robert J. DiPietro, an incumbent Democratic delegate who lost his Howard-Prince George's seat to a Republican challenger. "You just got this eerie sense that people wanted to clean house. They were generally frustrated with the world."
During her campaign, Ms. Bobo stressed that she has repeatedly taken on the development industry in an effort to slow the county's rapid growth.
Ms. Bobo pushed through laws to protect streams and steep slopes, put an 18-month cap on new housing construction, and has a proposal pending that would limit development where roads and schools are overburdened. She also won passage of a General Plan for growth that calls for clustering homes in the rural west to save open space, creating a greenbelt in the county's midsection, and building "mixed-use" centers of homes and offices on various sites in the east. But those efforts appeared not to have satisfied enough people on either side of the issue.
Ms. Bobo tried to find some middle ground between Columbia residents intent on limiting suburban sprawl and western county property owners who felt that agricultural preservation efforts were threatening their real estate values. In part, she did not please either group and her gains in Columbia were not enough to offset the loss of votes elsewhere in the county.
Mr. Ecker sought to blame Ms. Bobo and her fellow Democrats for the "growth mess" that he said resulted from prior Democratic county councils and said she was taking a "Band-Aid" approach in dealing with crowded schools and heavy traffic. A former deputy superintendent of county schools who switched political parties before running, Mr. Ecker also accused Ms. Bobo of being a spendthrift who had needlessly expanded the bureaucracy.
In the County Council races, the Republicans gained a council seat when Darrel Drown upset Democratic incumbent Angela Beltram in the 2nd District. He will join Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, as the second Republican on the council. Mr. Feaga won handily against D. Susan Scheidt.
Three Democrat incumbents were returned to the council, although Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, held only a 198-vote margin over Republican Dennis R. Schrader. C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, was unopposed and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, won easily in the Columbia area.
In state Senate races, Democratic incumbent Thomas Yeager defeated Guy L. Harriman in District 13, while incumbent Edward J. Kasemeyer trailed Republican Christopher J. McCabe by 575 votes in the 14th District.
In the House races, incumbent Republicans Robert H. Kittleman and Robert L. Flanagan held off challenges by former Councilman Lloyd G. Knowles and Columbia attorney James B. Kraft in District 14B. In District 13B, Republican challengers Martin G. Madden and John S. Morgan defeated Democratic incumbents William C. Bevan and Mr. DiPietro.
In District 13A, Democratic Delegate Virginia M. Thomas easily won re-election over Republican James D. Morgan.