Parties shift focus to Ehrlich, O'Malley race


Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 13, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

With the primaries over, both parties are now focused on a battle that has been brewing for four years to settle the question of whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election was a fluke or the beginning of a permanent realignment in state government.

With millions to spend on the race and the nearly undivided attention of the electorate, he and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley are now poised to battle day by day on every issue, whether it be the management of city schools or the administration of elections.

Ehrlich is Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, and he has made it his mission this year not only to win re-election but also to boost his party's numbers in the legislature and to help his lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. He has hopes, too, for his party's nominee for attorney general, Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle, and for the Republican's prospects in the open race for the Baltimore-area 3rd Congressional District.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane said the results of this election will determine whether there is a legitimate contest for ideas in the state.

"It's a continued pursuit by Republicans and independents and even some Democrats to try to establish a legitimate two-party state where debate and ideas are discussed rather than the backroom politics that have been the rule for the last 30 years," Kane said.

But state Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said the election is about education, health care and "helping working families in Maryland move forward."

The Democratic candidates have proven records on education and support significant changes to the health care system, Lierman said, whereas Ehrlich and Steele have done nothing but import "right-wing tactics" from President Bush.

"It's probably going to be one of the clearest-cut elections in recent history in Maryland," he said.

With those stakes, Ehrlich said, the Democrat-vs.-Republican fighting that is all but sure to dominate the news for the next two months is nothing new.

"In our race, it started [four] years ago, the day Martin O'Malley decided not to run" for governor in 2002, Ehrlich said. "It's been clear since then that he would be running this year. To me, there's nothing different about my schedule, my campaign, anything."

Ehrlich told supporters at a recent campaign event that his fate in this election will largely determine the fate of his party. If he wins big, he said, he'll bring a bounty of new Republican legislators to Annapolis, possibly enough to sustain his vetoes in the General Assembly. If he earns a slim victory, he said, those gains would be minimal at best. He didn't mention what would happen if he loses.

But O'Malley said that the end of the primaries means that Democrats across the state will be bent on making sure that Ehrlich is turned out of office.

"I think people are happy to have this primary behind us so we can come together as a united Democratic Party," O'Malley said. "There is a bigger battle raging, and that is to restore leadership to our nation by restoring leadership to our state."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that although the U.S. Senate race against Steele is a top-tier contest, it will pale next to the governor's race in terms of attention and energy in the next two months.

Maryland governors have tremendous power over the direction of the state because of their ability to set the budget, which Miller called the "moral conscience of the government" because it displays the state's commitment to education, health and social welfare. Recapturing that post means everything, he said.

"It's important to have a U.S. Senate seat, but people don't relate to that as much as they do to a governor," Miller said.

Because Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume ran a gentlemanly campaign in the Senate primary - complimenting each other even when they disagreed - Democrats said they expect it will be relatively easy for the party to unify under one ticket.

The only major intraparty friction came in the comptroller's race, in which the incumbent, William Donald Schaefer, leveled a series of insults at one of his competitors, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, in response to what he called her ageist campaign.

But Miller said that tension might not have much impact on the race because of Schaefer's lukewarm relationship with his party. Schaefer has been an Ehrlich ally for the past four years, although he promised to support the Democratic ticket in the fall. But he has long feuded with O'Malley and has not endorsed him by name.

"It's going to be hard to keep William Donald Schaefer in the fold," Miller said. "But most of his key supporters ... they're not going to line up behind the Democrats anyway."

Uniting as a party is less of an issue for the Republicans, who had little competition in primaries for the major races.

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