Pollster Brad Coker told the county's Democratic Central Committee Monday night the party is in trouble and he has no "magic bullet" for 1994.
Coker, who is credited with helping Republicans oust seven incumbent Democrats here Nov. 6, said the GOP victory was "evolutionary rather than revolutionary" -- something that has been coming for several years.
The high cost of county housing -- about $200,000 or more for a detached home and $100,000 or more for a town house -- means that the only people who can afford to move into the county, Coker said, are "white-collar, upper middle-class professionals" who traditionally vote Republican.
"There is nothing the local (Democratic) party can do to offset that," Coker said. "The new people moving in are very different" from the ones who settled Columbia 20 years ago.
The newly elected Republicans "now have to govern," Coker said. It may take a couple of years to get a feel for how they are doing, but "if the voters are satisfied, it could be very, very tough" for Democrats.
Only two Democrats -- County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo and state Sen.
Edward J. Kasemeyer in District 14 -- were "salvageable" in this election, Coker said. "Everybody else was a loser from the get-go." Democrats should "share the blame equally and not disproportionately."
In addition to a growing Republican sentiment within the county, there were "about eight or nine things" that Coker said led to the GOP win now rather than four years from now, as some had expected.
There were more GOP primaries than ever before. In the past, some people used to register as Democrats just so they could vote in the primaries, Coker said. "That is no longer necessary."
Coker credited primary wins by County Executive-elect Charles I. Ecker and Delegates-elect Martin G. Madden and John S. Morgan with abetting their victories. The win gave them a great deal of publicity in comparison with Democratic incumbents Bobo, William C. Bevan and Robert J. DiPietro, and it did so two months before the general election.
Coker noted that incumbent County Council chairman Shane Pendergrass, who narrowly defeated Republican Dennis R. Schrader in District 1, was a primary winner, as was incumbent state Sen. Thomas M. Yeager in District 13. In the general election, Yeager won easily over Republican challenger Guy L. Harriman. Neither Harriman nor Schrader had primary opposition.
Coker said the Republicans' decision not to oppose incumbent Councilman C. Vernon Gray in the 3rd District and to run only token opposition against incumbent Delegate Virginia Thomas in District 13A was a "solid strategy."
The Republicans feared that if either Democrat were seriously challenged, he or she would have waged campaigns that attracted voters more sympathetic to Bobo, Bevan and DiPietro.
Another factor hurting several Democrats, Coker said, was "the changing of the guard" -- the absence of former state Sen. James Clark and former Councilwoman Ruth Keeton from the ballot. "Both had political strength beyond their home areas," he said.
In the Bobo and Kasemeyer losses, "the two best Democratic issues -- education and environment" were co-opted by their Republican opponents, Coker said. Ecker, a former deputy school superintendent, bested Bobo on the education issue, and state Sen.-elect Christopher J. McCabe beat up on Kasemeyer on the environmental issue, Coker said.
Attempts by Democrats James B. Kraft and Lloyd G. Knowles to portray themselves as more pro-choice than Republican incumbents Robert L. Flanagan and Robert H. Kittleman in 14B didn't work, Coker said, because as a general rule, single issues don't matter as much in general elections as they do in the primaries. In a general election with several "single issues," no one issue matters, Coker said, because "they all start to dilute one another."
Overall, the Republicans worked "very, very hard" to win this election, having started over two years ago, Coker said. The candidates "got together on a weekly basis and (their) central committee was very well organized. I never saw the kind of bickering and infighting that I witnessed" as recently as Monday at Democratic meetings. Indeed, Coker's talk was delayed an hour and nine minutes Monday because of just such bickering.
The other thing Democrats overlooked this election, Coker said, was television. "Never underestimate it," he said, "not even on local cable."
Republicans produced individual and group commercials for a local cable company. Few Democrats bothered. Of those who did, the quality of their commercials often suffered by comparison with Republican efforts.
"My biggest nightmare during the last week of the campaign was that Liz Bobo would have spent the $40,000 she had left over and bought commercials on the Baltimore television stations," Coker said, speaking of his role as a paid Republican Party adviser. "If she had done that and hit back at Ecker, she would have won."
The one bit of hope for local Democrats is to look at what happened in Florida, Coker said. Once in power, the Republicans "stood in front of a gun and said, 'Shoot!' " and the Democrats fielded excellent candidates.
With similar snafus here and strong Democratic challengers, the party might just have a chance in 1994, Coker said.