A corker of an election is on the way

Bruce L. Bortz

November 19, 1992|By Bruce L. Bortz

AT THE ripe old age of 33, Brad Coker is hardly the eminenc grise of Maryland politics. But for the past nine years, Mr. Coker, as head of Columbia-based Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, has lived out 10 lifetimes of political experience conducting polls for -- and providing political analysis to -- hundreds of media organizations, advocacy groups and political campaigns. In the doing, he's acquired a reputation for accuracy, integrity and prescience.

Now, peering into his own uniquely shaped crystal ball, Mr. Coker foresees 1994 as the start of a state political era far livelier than the past dull decade and a half.

The headliner race promises to be the 1994 governor's contest, and Mr. Coker considers it absolutely wide open with no front-runners. "Anybody can win," he says, projecting a "very competitive Democratic primary" and maybe a competitive Republican one as well. If one of the name Republicans being mentioned for the race (Robert R. Neall, Helen Delich Bentley, Constance A. Morella) is nominated, he says, an exciting general election is in store.

The man some have called the Democratic front-runner, Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, may carry heavy baggage into the race, according to Mr. Coker. "Political insiders, and people in the know, recognize that Mr. Steinberg's been out of the loop for the past several years, but with the average voter, he's still known as Governor Schaefer's lieutenant governor. He'll face the same potentially intractable dilemma Blair Lee unsuccessfully dealt with in 1978. Everybody knew Lee as an honest, honorable man who had nothing to do with Marvin Mandel's problems. Despite performing competently as acting governor, Lee was tossed out by primary voters, who preferred a more obvious outsider -- Harry Hughes."

As Mr. Coker sees it, the Democrats' 1994 wild card is Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke. "Consistently, and among all state voters, he achieves high name recognition and high favorability. Plus, he enters a gubernatorial race with a solid base of black support." If he holds that black vote and adds to it a small percentage of white, liberal Democrats, Mr. Schmoke will take 35 percent of the vote -- enough for victory in a four-person primary, the pollster predicts.

That doesn't mean he'll win a general election, Mr. Coker cautions. He'll have to overcome the obstacle of race. "Racial voting patterns are very much in place here in Maryland, as they are in other states," says Mr. Coker. That means that, in rural areas and in certain suburbs, Mr. Schmoke will lose some white Democratic votes. "But he'll run well in the city, and possibly carry Prince George's County."

The missing link -- indeed the election's key -- Mr. Coker says, will be Montgomery County. The state's most populous and heaviest voting jurisdiction also has become its bellwether county, says Mr. Coker, who earned a political science degree from the University of Baltimore but couldn't get himself elected to the Democratic Central Committee in Howard. With the state's highest concentration of young, affluent, white-collar professionals, Montgomery can swing virtually any state election its way. If the Baltimore mayor holds the white Montgomery vote against Mr. Neall, Mrs. Bentley or another GOP nominee, says Mr. Coker, he will become Maryland's first black governor.

The Republican Party's growth in the suburbs, where many baby boomers have chosen to live, and the continuing growth of the suburbs themselves, also make it quite conceivable, according to Mr. Coker, that Marylanders in 1994 will elect their first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966.

GOP difficulties in past general elections for governor, he theorizes, have been due either to bad timing or bad candidates. "In the 1982 [Robert] Pascal-Hughes race, for example, Pascal [then Anne Arundel county executive] was probably one of the better candidates the Republicans could have put up. But things were going well for the state at the time, and Hughes, who was very popular, probably couldn't have been beaten. For Republicans, it was probably an instance of good candidate, bad timing. But in 1990, the party's timing was right, and the candidate wasn't. [GOP nominee] Bill Shepard was getting some coverage in early summer from a press corps that seemingly wanted a good race, and it could have been tight. But Mr. Shepard chose his wife, Lois, as his running mate, and it just deflated everything."

Normally, Mr. Coker would not direct his first gubernatorial election poll until the late fall of 1993. But there's a possibility of the first real donnybrook for governor in a quarter-century. That's good business for a pollster.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter and a political analyst for Channel 45 News. He writes on politics every other Thursday.

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