Democrats C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Christopher Van Hollen Jr. appeared to be headed to victory last night in two hotly contested races for Maryland congressional seats that have long been in Republican hands.
Incumbents easily won re-election to the state's six other seats in the House of Representatives.
In the 2nd District, Ruppersberger, 56, the Baltimore County executive, led former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, 78, in his quest to reverse two decades of Republican victories in the mostly Democratic district centered on Baltimore County's east side.
Bentley, taking jabs at the Democrats to the last, conceded defeat about 11 p.m., saying that even in a losing effort, her campaign workers may have provided an important boost to Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"Thank you so very, very much for the support you've given me," she said to a cheering crowd at the American Legion post in Towson. "It appears our efforts in Parris Glendening's new 2nd District have fallen short. But we have provided a solid backbone for Ehrlich's campaign.
In suburban Washington's 8th District, Van Hollen, 43, a state senator, led Rep. Constance A. Morella, 71, a popular eight-term incumbent.
The two districts were viewed by both national parties as swing seats in the battle for control of the House, where Republicans began the evening with a 223-208 advantage. The parties sent in money and political stars, including President Bush and his wife, Laura, and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady.
The contests presented Maryland Democrats with an opportunity to pick up a pair of seats long held by Republicans and break the 4-4 tie between the parties in the state's congressional delegation.
The Democrats used redistricting - the remapping of congressional districts that follows every census - to improve the party's prospects in both districts by adding precincts with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters.
Ruppersberger would be only the second Baltimore County executive ever elected to higher office. Spiro T. Agnew, who became governor and vice president, was the first.
When his plans for a gubernatorial bid faded last fall, Ruppersberger let it be known that he would be interested in running for Congress, provided that Gov. Parris N. Glendening could draw him a sufficiently Democratic district.
In the campaign, Bentley, who had held the seat for 10 years until giving it up to run for governor in 1994, emphasized her advocacy for the Port of Baltimore and her record of constituent service. She also stressed the Republican leadership's promise that her seniority and seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee would be restored if she were elected.
But demographics of the district made the race difficult for Bentley. The new 2nd District is 68 percent Democratic, though it includes many of the areas Bentley represented when she was in Congress before, including the port.
In the 8th District, based largely in Montgomery County with a sliver of Prince George's, Morella was trying to duplicate a proven formula: Win the votes of a huge majority of Republicans, a smaller majority of independents and at least a quarter of the district's Democrats. Democrats enjoy a voter registration advantage in the district of nearly 2-to-1.
But this year, there was a difference in Morella's style. For the first time in her congressional career, she attacked her opponent by name in television ads. Among other accusations, she said that Van Hollen backed legislation to cut income taxes for Maryland's wealthiest citizens. She also alleged that he had distorted the record of Del. Mark Shriver, Van Hollen's opponent in the primary.
Van Hollen accused Morella of trying to smear his record in the state Senate. But he focused less on Morella than on urging the district's Democrats to do their part to help the party regain control of the House. "Take back the House" became one of his campaign themes - and it appeared to resonate.
In their last day of campaigning, Van Hollen and Morella met inadvertently at the Leisure World retirement community, which forms the state's largest precinct and is consistently among the leaders in voter turnout. The candidates exchanged a cursory handshake before staking out positions on a walkway leading to the polling place.
The 8th District hasn't been in Democratic hands since former Rep. Michael Barnes stepped down to run for the Senate in 1986.
The polling places were themselves a story yesterday. Montgomery County, which bogged down in posting returns during the primary as it adjusted to new touch-screen machines, was faster last night but suffered a few glitches.
In the 19th Legislative District, the word "Democratic" appeared mistakenly in the screen's instructions to voters. Election workers scrambled to print a notice that the word should not have been there and would not affect balloting.