Maryland Democrats should be glad Duke switched parties

Frank A. DeFilippo

December 19, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

IF REPUBLICAN David Duke hopes to retrace Democrat George Wallace's footsteps across Maryland, he picked the right state but the wrong party.

Going strictly by the numbers, Duke the kleagle, the newly sanitized Christian, hasn't got a shot as a Republican.

Although there are Duke loonies among Maryland Republicans, most of them are mainstream, establishment and middlebrow white-bread types who like to discuss the intricacies of economic policy.

But working-class Democrats would be more likely to resonate with Duke's send-'em-a-message politics of welfare reform, urban crime, affirmative action and racial preference programs.

What's more, Maryland has no crossover primary in which voters of one party can vote in the election of another. There had been widespread speculation of significant shifts in party affiliation by crypto-Republicans, but when the books were closed on party changeovers Dec. 9, only a few Democrats made the switch to the Republican side. A sampling of election boards showed that Baltimore city recorded two, Baltimore County 21 and Anne Arundel seven.

The latest accounting shows that 1.34 million Democrats and 627,000 Republicans are registered in Maryland. Since the 1988 primary election, Republicans have gained 93,000 new voters.

But despite numerical gains, Republicans exercise their modest voting strength reluctantly. In 1988, for example, Maryland had 534,000 registered Republicans, but of that number only 203,000 -- 38.1 percent -- bothered to vote in a contested six-way primary won by George Bush.

By contrast, Wallace ran three times in Maryland, twice as a Democrat and once as the candidate of his American Independent Party. As a social backdrop to Wallace's first Maryland campaign, Cambridge was enflamed by race riots and occupied by the National Guard. The state's new public accommodations law was less than a year old. In 1964, Wallace (( captured 214,116 votes -- or 48 percent -- running against then Sen. Daniel B. Brewster, a stand-in candidate for Lyndon Johnson.

In 1968, Wallace ran in the general election as the American Independent Party candidate and won 178,734 votes against Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Humbert H. Humphrey. Humphrey won Maryland, denying vice presidential candidate Spiro T. Agnew a home-state victory.

In 1972, Wallace actually won the Maryland primary election after being gunned down on a Laurel parking lot. Wallace pulled 219,687 votes and won six of eight congressional districts over George McGovern and Humphrey.

But for the coming March 3 primary election, the primal scream is the dismal condition of the nation's economy. And Bush will be pummeled from the right flank by both Duke and hard-line conservative Patrick Buchanan. It's tough economic times like these that bring out the bigots.

In the short view, it's in the Maryland Republican Party's interest to protect a sitting president. But in the long view, Duke's potential threat is as a mischief-maker at the GOP convention or possibly as a third-party candidate.

Among other sideshows to the Duke candidacy is the question how much drag he'll have on the GOP's candidates for other offices. There are five announced Republicans competing for nomination to the U.S. Senate. The best known is Alan Keyes, a black conservative ideologue who won the GOP nomination in 1988 and captured 38 percent of the general election votes against Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

In an amusing turn of the screw, shorn of the sheet and the swastika, Keyes' message is virtually identical to Duke's -- practice bootstrap economics, do away with welfare, eliminate racial preference programs and cut taxes. So how, it is fair to ask, can Republicans criticize Duke when one of their very own candidates is preaching the very same message? What's more, the fact that Keyes is black gives legitimacy to Duke's words.

That Duke is on the Maryland ballot is more by dint of public relations than by a quirk of politics. Maryland's primary has been considered insignificant because of its small number of electoral votes (12). Last time, many presidential candidates bypassed the state completely to direct their resources at large states such as New York, California and Pennsylvania.

In 1970, with bipartisan support and no opposition, the election laws were changed to their present form, which is supposed to encourage presidential candidates to campaign in Maryland. The law empowers the secretary of state to determine which candidates are of presidential caliber, based on the national recognition they achieve.

Once that decision is made, candidates are notified that their names will appear on Maryland's ballot and will be removed only at the written request of the candidate. Duke's in the Maryland campaign with both feet.

So Maryland Democrats can be thankful that Duke changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. As a Democrat, Duke's showing might have been entirely different -- and embarrassing.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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