How can a Republican win?

Upset: Odds are against it, but many see this year's Maryland gubernatorial race as an opportunity for the GOP.

August 04, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The last time it happened, Spiro T. Agnew was considered the liberal in the race.

That would be the last time a Republican was elected governor of Maryland. The year was 1966, and Agnew was the man.

Though he would go down in political history as Richard M. Nixon's hatchet man -- calling the press "nattering nabobs of negativism" was one of his choice lines -- and in legal history for resigning as vice president and pleading guilty to taking bribes, that was not his image when he ran for governor.

Agnew was the progressive county executive of Baltimore County who had just taken the politically dangerous step of championing a fair-housing measure that would go down to defeat in a referendum.

His Democratic opponent in the governor's race, who emerged from a crowded and divisive primary, was George P. Mahoney. The theme of his campaign was "Your Home Is Your Castle," a not-so-subtle hit on anti-discrimination fair-housing laws.

Agnew's victory repeated the political dynamic of the previous Republican trip to the governor's mansion: Theodore R. McKeldin got the support of labor and civil rights groups to beat Preston Lane in 1950.

Suffice it to say that if Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. makes it to Annapolis, it won't be by the same path. "That's all such ancient history," pollster Carol Arscott says of those previous Republican victories.

In the decade after Agnew's win, Maryland's Democratic Party underwent a sea change with the emergence of people like Barbara A. Mikulski, Steny H. Hoyer and Paul S. Sarbanes. And the state's Republican party ceased to be in the hands of moderates like Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias.

That, combined with the character of the state's electorate, turned Maryland into one of the most consistently Democratic states in the nation. The state that almost chose George Wallace in its Democratic presidential primary in 1964 -- and did in 1972 -- now rivals Massachusetts as the most reliable member of the Democratic column on Election Day.

But as the fall election season approaches, most agree that the right combination of events could lead to an Ehrlich upset of Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

"It would take harmonic convergence," is the way Arscott, who has been active in Republican campaigns, puts it.

On paper, it seems an impossible task. Democrats have about a 2-to-1 margin among registered voters. Almost 29 percent of the Maryland's population is African-American, a bloc that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. The state's population anchors of Baltimore and the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties seem solidly Democratic, apparently precluding a Republican statewide victory.

But most agree that Ellen R. Sauerbrey showed with her near-defeat of Parris N. Glendening in 1994 that it can be done.

For one, voter registration figures are thought to be deceptive, skewed by the fact that in this heavily Democratic state, voters of all persuasions register as Democrats so they can vote in the Democratic primary because it is so often the deciding election.

"There are plenty of closet Republicans registered as Democrats," says Herbert Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster. "The rise of independence in voting means that registration is a very imperfect predictor of voting behavior. If we had open primaries, voter registration would fall close to parity in five years."

The black vote is considered a larger hurdle for a Republican.

"When 25 percent of the voters are African-American and they traditionally give Democrats the vast majority of their votes, that's a tough nut to crack," says Arscott.

When Sauerbrey fell only a few thousand votes short in 1994, a low black turnout was seen as the key to that near-upset. Glendening learned his lesson and focused on civil rights issues -- he was accused of playing the race card -- four years later, got a big black turnout and secured an easy victory over the same opponent.

Ehrlich has made his approach clear -- he is confronting the issue head on, naming an African-American, Michael S. Steele, as his running mate and openly courting the black vote. So far, it has worked, as his support among blacks has crept up to 13 percent according to the latest Sun poll -- still a small number, but higher than Republicans have been registering.

"One way Ehrlich can win is by making further inroads into the African-American vote," says Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "By my calculations, if he gets up to 20 percent of the black vote, he will have enough [with] the white vote to win. But that's going to be a stretch."

Even if Ehrlich is not able to get that many black votes, he might be able to reduce the number of blacks who go to the polls to vote against him -- as many did to vote against Sauerbrey last time around.

"Ehrlich has got to neutralize the race issue," says Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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