Liberal Maryland veers to the right Whether the change is permanent remains the question Cliffhanger to end today? ELECTION 1994

November 10, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

No matter which candidate eventually prevails when absentee ballots are counted today, Maryland's new governor will preside over a state that has veered to the right and is deeply divided over the role of government.

One of the last bastions of Democratic dominance, Maryland split down the middle on Tuesday over a candidate -- Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- who promised to break the opposition party's grip on the Governor's Mansion and set the state on a new conservative course.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, the minority leader of the Maryland House, also pledged to bring smaller, less-intrusive government to Maryland, a commitment that Tuesday's election results and exit polling show gained her the support of large numbers of voters.

For Maryland, which has remained truer than most states to a liberal Democratic tradition that stretches back to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the inception of the New Deal, Mrs. Sauerbrey's success may augur a discernible change in political coloration.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in voter registration statewide, but the results of the governor's race suggest that the GOP can continue to build on its gains since the 1970s, when the ratio was 3-to-1.

"We're well on our way to a two-party system," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "Win or lose, this is an important election historically for Maryland."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, had a less academic interpretation, saying the election did not signal a deep political shift.

The governor attributed the size of the Sauerbrey vote to an electorate he characterized as "selfish, not caring, not friendly to each other, distrustful of political people."

Mrs. Sauerbrey or Democrat Parris N. Glendening will take office in January knowing that the state seems to have sorted itself politically for this election into two camps based on geographic region, population density and, to a degree, racial makeup.

At least for the moment.

Unclear is whether the picture that emerges from an analysis of Tuesday's results is a snapshot, soon to fade as fresh issues and personalities claim the attention of voters, or an enduring portrait of a new, conservatively tinged, more Republican Maryland.

Crime was big issue

Crime was the most important issue to voters Tuesday, 35 percent placing it at the top of their list of concerns, according to exit polling conducted for The Sun by the Election News Service, a subsidiary of the New York polling firm Mitofsky International.

Among these voters, Mr. Glendening held the edge, 54 percent to 46 percent.

The two candidates did not differ markedly in their anti-crime positions, however, both supporting the death penalty and stiffer sentencing procedures. The second-largest group of voters, 29 percent, cited a category pertaining to the "role of government" as one of the issues that mattered most to them.

These voters split 47 percent for Mr. Glendening, 53 percent for Mrs. Sauerbrey.

Since the Democrat promised to be an activist governor and the Republican vowed to scale back government, those figures seem to reveal the near total absence of consensus within the body politic.

Thus, whoever moves to Annapolis will do so knowing that half the electorate looks on government as Mr. Glendening and traditional Democrats do -- as a potentially positive force in the lives of its citizens.

The other half views it through the same lens as Mrs. Sauerbrey and conservative Republicans -- as a threat, especially when it grows too large, as she says it has.

There were other illuminating elements to the governor's race.

Glendening's big three

Mr. Glendening, if he wins, will govern with majority voter support in just three of the state's 24 subdivisions -- Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- Mrs. Sauerbrey having carried the Baltimore suburbs and the rural areas.

As a result, his power will rest on a tripod, with two legs anchored in the heavily populated Washington suburbs and the third in a financially strapped city kept afloat in large part through infusions of state aid from a succession of sympathetic governors.

The city, having supported the Prince George's County executive 3-to-1 over Mrs. Sauerbrey, will expect no less -- and possibly more -- from Mr. Glendening but will have no claim on Mrs. Sauerbrey.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, by contrast, would take office knowing that her message of lower taxes and less government spending failed to move voters in three of the state's four most populous jurisdictions.

She carried the fourth, Baltimore County, her political base, though by an unremarkable 57 percent of the vote.

Mr. Glendening enjoyed the support from black voters normally accorded a Democrat, outpacing his GOP rival 80 percent to 20 percent among African-Americans, according to the exit poll.

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