GOP has hope Md. can buck trend

Ehrlich and Steele run strong despite national discontent

November 05, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The national mood is so grim that analysts predict Republicans could lose control of one or both houses of Congress and relinquish governors' mansions across the country. But with just two days to go before the election, the story in Maryland could be very different.

Polls here show tightening races for governor and the open U.S. Senate seat, leaving the tantalizing possibility for the GOP that one of the most reliably Democratic states in national elections could buck the national trend and go Republican.

Democrats in the state have toiled for months to make the races hinge on national issues, but they're finding that here this year, all politics are personal.

And the state GOP has fielded two of the biggest personalities it has produced in years: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. The pair are using their formidable personal connections to Maryland voters to attempt a feat of political jujitsu: turn the Democrats' momentum for change to their advantage.

"The truth of it is that Ehrlich and Steele have run very strong campaigns," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has informally advised their Democratic rivals. "They are spending every resource, trying every message and running as compelling a campaign as they could amid a disfavorable political and partisan environment."

The latest polls show Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate for governor, in a statistical tie with or holding a slight lead over Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor in 36 years. Other polls show Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democrats' pick for Senate, with a slight lead over Steele, the highest-ranking African-American official in Maryland history.

That's coming at a time when, according to a new Sun poll, just 37 percent of Maryland voters have a favorable impression of Bush and nearly six in 10 view him negatively.

Victories by Ehrlich and Steele would almost certainly put Maryland in the spotlight and raise questions about whether the state is moving from blue to red.

But beyond the two GOP ticket leaders, there is little evidence that the party is headed for an era of dominance.

The state's House of Representatives delegation, for example, is almost certain to remain 75 percent Democratic. The party is expected to easily retain the high-profile statewide offices of attorney general and comptroller. And after the elections, Democrats will likely still hold the chief executive's posts in four of Maryland's largest jurisdictions.

Moreover, the Maryland Republican Party continues to struggle to expand its bench of potential leaders.

Thousands of new residents are due to arrive in the state through a national realignment of military personnel, potentially increasing the pool of politically conservative voters. But it will take years - if not decades - for new conservative leaders to percolate through the ranks of local zoning and school boards.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County, said the GOP seems not to have launched a new generation of stars to follow Ehrlich and Steele.

"I just don't see anybody out there who has their kind of stature for the future," Barve said. "If both of them are defeated, their party is going to be in the wilderness for another 15 years."

O'Malley's campaign has been banking on the national trend against Republicans to galvanize Maryland Democrats to come to the polls. His ads and rhetoric have often attempted to tie Ehrlich with Bush.

The mayor said he believes the race is close because of Ehrlich's ability to use the power of incumbency. No Maryland governor has lost re-election since 1954, and O'Malley said Ehrlich has been able to use his position and fundraising advantage to present himself as he wants to be seen, not necessarily as he is.

"Punching through with the objective truth in that climate is very difficult, especially when one is outraised and outspent by powerful, wealthy special interests," O'Malley said. "The governor is good at presenting himself as a moderate in election years while governing with a very narrow-minded right-wing agenda in non-election years."

With the race tightening and money running short, O'Malley has relied on personal appearances by Democratic Party luminaries - former President Bill Clinton, New York Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (twice), former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards - to capitalize on anti-GOP voter sentiment. Former Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to stump with O'Malley in Montgomery County tomorrow.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said high-profile national Republican foibles of the past few years - such as the scandal surrounding former Florida Rep. Mark Foley and mistakes in the Iraq war - have energized Marylanders' desire to vote.

But he believes they will decide based on local issues and which candidates they believe can address them.

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