GOP looks to gain seats 1999 General Assembly expected to be a bit more Republican, right

All lawmakers up for election

July 19, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser | Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

With all 188 legislative seats in the General Assembly up for grabs this fall, Democrats are expected to keep control in both houses, but Republicans are likely to pick up a handful of seats -- building modestly on their exhilarating gains of the early 1990s.

As a result, the General Assembly that convenes in Annapolis in January could well be slightly more Republican, analysts and legislators say.

Appearing the most vulnerable this fall are moderate lawmakers who face challenges from right-leaning Republicans, particularly in rural areas.

State Democratic leaders maintain that they can hold Republican gains in the legislature to a minimum -- or, if things break right, even take back a few seats -- after glumly watching the GOP ranks in the Senate and House more than double during the 1990s.

"I don't see the right wing making any significant gains in the General Assembly," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has raised more than $500,000 to help fellow Senate Democrats this year.

Miller said Democratic incumbents can bask in the good feelings generated by the state's solid economy.

"People think things are going well," said Miller, of Prince George's County. "While it lasts, somebody's got to take credit for it. It might as well be those who are in office."

In 1994, a pro-Republican, anti-incumbent tide washed over Maryland -- and most of the rest of the country -- boosting the party's numbers in the state legislature from34 to 56.

That kind of gain is out of reach this year, Republicans concede, as the GOP may have reached a plateau in a state where Democrats still maintain an almost 2-1 edge in voter registrations.

"There will be changes here and there, but Republican candidates in the last election pretty much won almost everything they could have won, given the current districts," said Carol A. Arscott, a GOP political consultant based in Howard County.

Republicans are also not favored to make any inroads in three large, heavily Democratic jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

In Baltimore, for example, only one of the eight incumbent Democratic senators, George W. Della Jr. of South Baltimore, even has a Republican challenger.

Instead, the GOP will peck away in the margins by targeting moderate Democrats in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, and Democrats of all stripes in such suburban areas as Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

Pockets of opportunity

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House Republican whip, predicted the GOP will pick up three to five seats in the House of Delegates, which he said was about as many as could be hoped for in existing legislative districts.

"If you look at the pockets of opportunity, there are just fewer," Flanagan said.

But House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, predicts his party could achieve a "slight" increase in its numbers in the 141-member House, which now has 100 Democrats and 41 Republicans.

"There are some areas of the state where the Republican incumbents are weak and vulnerable," Taylor said, citing Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland in particular.

One delegate facing a potentially tough Republican challenge is D. Bruce Poole, a moderate Democrat from Hagerstown, who beat his 1994 Republican opponent by only 72 votes.

A 12-year veteran of the House, Poole said that as he campaigns door-to-door, voters seem to pay little attention to party affiliation.

"Most of the people who greet you at the door, shake your hand, and eyeball you and decide if they like you," Poole said. "I don't think they get into this partisan stuff."

One of Poole's prospective Republican challengers, Hagerstown pharmacist David M. Russo, said he believes the Democratic incumbent is vulnerable because he recently made a well-publicized but unsuccessful attempt to win appointment to

a judgeship.

Neither party expects much turnover in the Senate, where 46 of the 47 incumbents are seeking re-election. Republicans privately say they will do well to maintain all 15 of their seats.

A top priority for the GOP will be to defend a Harford County seat held by Republican David R. Craig, who is running for county executive. Squaring off for the Senate post are two delegates -- Mary Louise Preis, a Democrat, and Republican Nancy Jacobs.

A tough battle also is expected in the 6th District, which includes parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, pitting incumbent Sen. Michael J. Collins, a veteran Democrat, against Del. Kenneth C. Holt, a Republican.

Battles within party

While there are only a few incumbent Democratic senators who appear at risk from GOP opponents, four are facing challenges from Democratic delegates eager to move to the other chamber -- even if it means crawling over one of their own.

Likewise, some moderate Republicans face challenges from conservative insurgents within their own party.

Republican activists identify Frederick County's Sen. John W. Derr, the minority whip, as the most vulnerable incumbent.

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