Primary change may be doomed

Democrats' efforts to move up '06 vote fought by critics in House of Delegates


A push by top Maryland Democrats to help their candidates by changing the date of the 2006 primary appears doomed by intraparty opposition from the House of Delegates.

Led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the minority whip from Southern Maryland, prominent Democrats have been urging state lawmakers to pass a bill changing the date of next year's primary from September to June or July - giving party winners more time to regroup before the general election against Republicans.

But House Democrats say several factors are working against the plan - from the potential for bad publicity to self-interest about their own elections.

"Stick a fork in it," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, speaking of the date-change proposal.

Many Democrats are worried about contested primaries in high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate that will likely sap cash and inflict wounds on the eventual winners. Meanwhile, well-financed Republican candidates will face little opposition before next year's November general election.

In the governor's race, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are battling for the right to challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who will face no serious GOP opposition.

Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele can amass money while former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and a host of lesser-known Democrats struggle for the nomination in the open contest for U.S. Senate.

Hoyer and other top Democrats are worried that their party's nominees for governor and Senate won't have enough time in the eight weeks between the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 general election to wage successful campaigns against Ehrlich and Steele. Shifting the date of the primary would give Democrats more time to raise money and unite factions, they say.

The date-change issue remains a discussion topic during monthly meetings of the Democratic Party's state advisory committee, which includes Hoyer and other members of Congress, as well as county executives and others.

The debate is expected to spill into the opening days of the General Assembly session next month, since a bill would have to pass quickly to make the change. But with top House Democrats such as Barve and Speaker Michael E. Busch expressing pessimism, prospects for the measure appear bleak.

Derek Walker, acting executive director of the state Democratic Party, said a shift could benefit candidates from both parties, as well as voters.

"Given how much money is spent on these elections, the voters get a much more balanced sense of the choices in front of them if the money is spent over time," Walker said.

"In a short window, you get a lot more negative campaigning, because you have less time to identify a positive brand," he said, adding that such campaigning turns voters off to the political process.

But changing the primary date creates problems of its own, critics contend:

Republicans will argue that Democrats, who control the General Assembly, are changing rules only when it suits them. Democrats don't want the negative publicity, several lawmakers said.

"It is partisan shenanigans, tampering with election law to suit their benefit," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. Miller said that GOP candidates are prepared to use the issue during campaigns if necessary.

Many Democratic state delegates and senators don't want to move the primary closer to the end of the General Assembly session in mid-April. State law prohibits state elected officials from raising money during the 90-day session, and incumbents say their challengers could amass a fund-raising edge that can't be overcome.

Local elected officials, such as county council members and county executives, make sometimes-unpopular budget decisions in the late spring and don't want to face voters while the furor remains high.

"I'm sure it will be debated, but the votes are not there in the House, and I don't think any amount of arm twisting will change it," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is running for comptroller against incumbent William Donald Schaefer.

Busch, who has been lukewarm to the idea of a primary shift, said he recently surveyed the 98-member House Democratic caucus and found opinion evenly divided.

"It's split pretty close," he said.

That could leave Democrats short of a majority needed to pass legislation, and short of the 85 votes needed to override a gubernatorial veto of the bill if it passes.

State House observers say they expect Ehrlich to veto a date-change bill if it reaches his desk.

"We understand the dynamics," Busch said. "It was only a discussion to start."

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