Voters stray from party Republicans in Harford County largely rejected partisanship in last week's primaries, a sign that local Democrats hope opens the door for their first significant gains in more than a decade.
In addition to nominating four candidates who recently switched affiliation to the GOP, as well as a candidate for County Council president whose campaign largely lacked party bias, Republicans rebuffed the chairman of the party's central committee and a candidate who had billed himself as a "conservative's conservative."
They also sent home two politicians with a combined 36 years in office.
County voters from both parties have strongly favored Republicans since 1990. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s overwhelming support here in 2002 and a waning Democratic voter registration advantage have been a reinforcement of the trend.
But Democrats saw last week's uneven results as proof that even if the county remains red, voters are open to change. Like their statewide counterparts, local Democratic leaders believe the conservative Reagan Democrats are dissatisfied with the GOP, putting their candidates in a position to mount serious challenges.
"Where we're coming from, the signs for hope is that the electorate showed a willingness to dismiss long-serving incumbents," said Michael G. Comeau, chairman of the county Democratic central committee. "[Certain races] on the Republican side showed the people of Harford County sometimes are willing to put service and personal knowledge above party."
On one hand, voters seemed to side with Republican party leaders who for years had been targeting Council President Robert S. Wagner and Del. Joanne S. Parrott - both longtime GOP politicians criticized for not always holding the party line. But the voters also chose several candidates who have served for years as active Democrats.
"The County Council races seemed to go to people who really worked hard and had a good message for voters," said County Executive David R. Craig. "That is good, old-fashioned politics."
Victories by two of the so-called "switch-o-crats" were noteworthy not only because of the candidates' previous party affiliation, but because of whom they defeated.
Harry Hopkins, a 60-year Democrat whose conversion to the GOP had been well-documented, appeared to have edged out William G. Christoforo in the race for register of wills. Christoforo had campaigned as a "lifelong Republican" - bolded in blue in campaign literature that also featured endorsements by prominent Republicans such as Craig, former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.
The margin of victory would be small - about 200 votes out of 16,000 cast - but symbolic.
More convincingly, Chad R. Shrodes, a county planner and 2000 delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Al Gore, defeated Jason C. Gallion, a livestock farmer who was endorsed by the GOP hierarchy and had been campaigning for years. In a contest that featured five candidates, Shrodes, who Comeau called "Mr. Democrat," captured nearly 50 percent of the vote and will face Democrat Terence Cox in the general election.
"Shrodes really surprised me," said Avery Ward, a professor of political science at Harford Community College who advised Parrott in her re-election bid. "Gallion had labored in the Republican vineyard for a decade, a third of his life."
Republicans note that Shrodes' transition didn't happen overnight - he has worked to recruit and register hundreds of new GOP voters for the past few years. And his campaign, like most local races, ultimately boiled down to connections, yard signs and interaction with voters.
But Shrodes admitted Friday that he wasn't sure how his Democratic past would play.
"I was a little worried about it," said Shrodes, 32. "They were trying hard to press it from many angles."
In addition to Shrodes, James V. McMahan Jr. in District C and John P. Correri Jr. in District F won the Republican nomination. Both had been elected to municipal government as Democrats and sported higher name recognition than their opponents.
Comeau said he wouldn't consider a Republican victory by a former Democrat a gain for his party. He said the central committee would continue to push its own candidates.
With a slate of high-profile battles high on the ballot, Democrats were a greater presence at the polls Tuesday. But overall turnout for both parties was the lowest in at least 12 years. Officials from both parties cited apathy and dissatisfaction with government as possible explanations, as well as a lack of competitive, high-ballot races for Republicans.
As she left her voting location at St. Francis DeSales, Gerre Wolff said she is a registered Republican, but not particularly proud of that fact. In general elections she is "very independent," she said, but added that she is also a realist: In Harford, the Republican primary is crucial.
"My party has let me down," said Wolff, 64. "But I stay because I at least want some say in who it's going to be."