Parties part on vote's portent

Democrats see electorate wanting change

GOP sees an opening for Ehrlich

Gubernatorial race

Maryland Votes 2006 -- The Primary Election

September 14, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

If anyone was surprised by Del. Peter Franchot's victory in the Democratic primary for comptroller, it was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

In the afternoon of primary day, Ehrlich said he expected his longtime ally, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, to win. His hunch was wrong.

Other Ehrlich friends had trouble, too. Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's Democrat who sided with the governor on slot machines and other issues, lost to an Ehrlich critic. And Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat who is friendly with the governor, barely survived a challenge from the left.

"I think there is a tremendous mood for change and progress in our state," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, said yesterday of the primary results. "I think people are looking to the future, not the past."

Republicans dismissed Tuesday's results as the product of an increasingly liberal Democratic primary electorate, a development they said could make it easier for Ehrlich to paint the party as hard-left in the general election.

It's a message the governor has begun delivering. In one of his most effective television ads, a woman who appears to be an Ehrlich supporter tells the camera that the governor leads not from the right or from the left, "but the center, where most of us are."

The three pillars of Ehrlich's electoral success, he has said, are the Republican base, independent voters and conservative Schaefer Democrats - the kind who crossed party lines to vote for President Ronald Reagan and who did it again to elect Ehrlich.

But looking at the primary results, Ehrlich's opponents are betting that the third pillar has weakened and that the governor will have to contend with a less hospitable political landscape than he did four years ago.

"The blue-collar, Reagan Democrats are coming home in this election," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park's Leadership Academy, said the governor shouldn't ignore the primary results. The state is not what it was in 2002, he said.

Walters released an analysis this week showing that rather than cutting down on Democrats' voter registration advantage in the wake of Ehrlich's election, Republicans have lost ground in the past four years.

There are 55,000 new Democratic voters in Prince George's County, he said. Turnout figures from the primary suggest their impact has not been felt, but that between their presence and the success of candidates such as Franchot, Ehrlich has reason to be worried for the general election.

"He's got to look at that really hard," Walters said. "This has got to be a wake-up call to him."

Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and a long-time friend of Ehrlich, said it's dangerous to extrapolate too much from the results of this week's election.

Democratic primary voters tend to be significantly more liberal than Democrats who turn out for the general election, he said.

"The initial reaction is `uh-oh' for Ehrlich, but that doesn't mean it will necessarily turn out in that way," Vatz said. "The result is that we have another left-liberal in the race, and the consequence of that isn't obvious to me."

At a campaign stop Tuesday at a Randallstown polling place, Ehrlich was dismissive of Franchot and his liberal leanings, saying he expected Schaefer to win.

He then turned to a group of his supporters and asked them how many thought one of Schaefer's opponents, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, would win. A couple raised their hands.

"And how many of you think Peter Franchot will break, oh, 15 percent?" Ehrlich said, laughing as if to suggest the idea was absurd.

But Maryland voters, it seems, aren't in the fame of mind that Ehrlich thought they were.

Franchot easily broke 15 percent in capturing the race.

Schaefer, who parlayed a conservative Democratic philosophy into legendary status in Maryland politics, was relegated to third place behind Owens.

Ehrlich took more shots at Franchot yesterday, saying the delegate will have a tough time against the Republican comptroller nominee, political novice Anne McCarthy.

"His record in Annapolis is laughable," Ehrlich said. "Obviously being in a three-way race benefited him. ... It's going to be a very competitive race [in the general election]."

Kevin Igoe, a Republican strategist, said the victory of Franchot and the struggles of moderate candidates elsewhere, such as U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat whose vote for the Iraq war left him unexpectedly vulnerable to a challenge from the left, could be good news for Ehrlich.

With the victories of other liberal local and state politicians, Ehrlich can now paint his election as a choice between a moderate Republican and "Takoma Park comes to Annapolis," a reference to the famously liberal Montgomery community that Franchot calls home, Igoe said.

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