Franchot leads by 2-to-1 in Sun poll

Democrat is ahead of GOP's McCarthy in race for comptroller

Maryland Votes 2006 -- 41 Days Until Nov. 7

September 27, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Fresh off his upset primary victory over Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Del. Peter Franchot holds an almost 2-to-1 lead over his Republican opponent, former University of Baltimore business school dean Anne M. McCarthy, according to a new Sun poll.

Franchot appears to have come through a contentious three-way battle for the Democratic nomination with minimal damage. He is garnering the support of nearly eight in 10 Democrats for the important but low-visibility job of chief tax collector. He is also leading among the independents who have made up their minds.

Overall, the Montgomery County lawmaker was favored by 54 percent of poll respondents, while 29 percent backed McCarthy and 17 percent were undecided. According to the poll, Franchot enjoys overwhelming leads in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City. The 58-year-old delegate also had solid leads in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties - jurisdictions a Republican usually has to win to prevail in a statewide race. Only in rural Maryland was McCarthy ahead. The survey was conducted Sept. 15 to Sept. 18 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said it is "no surprise" that Franchot would start the general election campaign with a solid lead. Franchot's lead mirrors the party registration advantage that Democrats hold in Maryland.

"Barring a miracle on behalf of McCarthy or a catastrophic error on behalf of Franchot, it's his," Norris said of the election.

Republicans would love to beat the outspokenly partisan Franchot, but with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a fight to save his job, it's questionable whether the GOP will be able to give McCarthy, 48, the resources to compete effectively.

In the absence of a drastic shift before the Nov. 7 election, Franchot would likely join Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to form at least a 2-to-1 Democratic majority on the powerful Board of Public Works, which reviews large state contracts and other executive decisions.

James G. Gimpel, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Franchot's victory over Schaefer, a frequent supporter of Ehrlich on the board, raises the importance of the contest for the GOP. "It's a race that's very much in doubt for the Republicans, but they certainly have an incentive to campaign hard for their candidate," he said.

Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said McCarthy will have the GOP's full support. She said when voters look at Franchot's "20-year career of partisan bomb--throwing" in the General Assembly, they'll swing to McCarthy.

Franchot said he has received a positive response since his primary victory. "I am optimistic that message of progressive, independent fiscal responsibility is going to be well-received by Marylanders of all political persuasions," he said.

When Franchot first disclosed his plans to challenge Schaefer, many observers said he was embarking on a quixotic battle against a Maryland political legend. Franchot's prospects were clouded when Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens entered the race last spring.

But Schaefer's appeal among Democrats had eroded after years of outspoken support for Ehrlich and intemperate comments about immigrants and women. By crafting a message designed to appeal to core Democratic activists, Franchot was able to fly under the political radar and close strongly as Schaefer's candidacy collapsed.

The primary campaign ended with Schaefer, 84, making comments about Owens' physical appearance and accusing her of age discrimination. Franchot publicly urged his opponents to focus on issues, and some poll respondents were impressed by how he conducted his campaign.

Peter Steger, a self-described moderate Republican from Baltimore who plans to vote for Ehrlich, said he was glad to see Franchot win the primary and plans to support him in November. "The last week of the campaign was awful, embarrassing. He's the one who stood out as above the fray," said Steger, 44.

McCarthy will inherit the support of some voters who were distressed to see Schaefer lose.

Frank Dean, a Reisterstown Republican, would have voted for Schaefer if he had won the Democratic nomination. Now he plans to vote for McCarthy. "It broke my heart when Willie Don didn't make it," said Dean, 67.

Mark Goldin, a self-described liberal from Silver Spring, had the opposite reaction. He said Franchot's challenge to Schaefer was "wonderful," and Goldin said he will enthusiastically back his party's nominee.

Both McCarthy and Franchot said they finished their primary campaigns with depleted war chests, but expressed optimism they will be able to raise enough money to run competitively.

Norris predicted McCarthy would have difficulty raising enough money to close the gap. A four-year Maryland resident, she has not run for office before. She is the niece of former Rep. Edward J. Derwinski, a Republican who represented suburban Chicago for more than 20 years.

"She's an unknown," Norris said. He added that Republicans are likely to focus on the governor's race and the U.S. Senate campaign of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

Gimpel said that in "down ballot" races such as comptroller, voters often have little information about the candidates and rely mostly on party affiliation in making a choice.

Democrats haven't lost a Maryland comptroller's race since 1898, which doesn't bode well for McCarthy.

"You need something major - a scandal," Gimpel said. "Those have been known to happen - it's a long shot."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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