O'Malley, Cardin declare victory

Ehrlich refuses to concede, cites absentees; Democrats seize control of the U.S. House

  • Election 2006 night at Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley's headquarter at the Hippodrome Theatre. Martin O'Malley celebrates his victory with supporters.
Election 2006 night at Democratic gubernatorial candidate… (KENNETH K. LAM / Baltimore…)
November 07, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and Doug Donovan, The Baltimore Sun

Buoyed by a national tide against Republicans, Mayor Martin O'Malley declared victory in the governor's race last night, appearing to have prevailed in his long and difficult campaign against a popular incumbent. Despite a poor showing in the crucial Baltimore suburbs, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he will not concede until thousands of absentee ballots are counted.

With more than four-fifths of the state's precincts reporting, Ehrlich, Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, faced a large deficit that he could overcome only by capturing the vast majority of absentee votes.

The mood was jubilant at O'Malley's post-election party at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, where the exuberant Democrat addressed throngs of supporters minutes after midnight.

"God bless you, Maryland," O'Malley said. "For the working families of Maryland, it is time to move Maryland forward again."

Ehrlich told several hundred backers at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore early this morning that his administration had a "decent shot" at another four years.

"We don't know, folks, we just don't know," Ehrlich said. "We will count the votes. We will count all the votes. ... We've been around 20 years, and we've got a decent shot to be around four more."

Ehrlich's speech interrupted O'Malley's televised victory declaration, prompting boos from the crowd at the Hippodrome who could see the governor's image on a big-screen television.

"I'm still waiting for the call, by the way," O'Malley said.

The returns suggested that Ehrlich was having a difficult time replicating his 2002 formula for success in heavily Democratic Maryland. O'Malley cut into the huge margins Ehrlich ran up in the suburbs that ring Baltimore and in rural Maryland while expanding on Democrats' traditional advantage in Baltimore and suburban Washington.

Republicans said they believe the governor can make up ground when the record number of absentee ballots are tallied. More than 190,000 people requested absentee ballots after calls by Ehrlich and Democratic leaders to use them as a means to bypass the state's new electronic voting machines. More Democrats than Republicans requested absentee ballots, however.

Election workers will begin counting those ballots on scanning machines tomorrow, but election challenges from the lawyers who have been retained by both political parties could prevent a winner from being officially declared for weeks. The last time an election was this close, in 1994, the losing candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, pursued a legal challenge for two months and never conceded defeat.

The prospect for legal challenges was unclear early this morning.

"There are many things we're paying attention to, but tomorrow morning we'll put our heads together and see where we stand. Once we see what the facts are on the ground, we'll know better," said Sev Miller, the Ehrlich campaign's general counsel.

O'Malley campaign manager Josh White said the mayor would be prepared if Ehrlich does mount a legal challenge.

"I'm sure they'll pull out all the stops," White said. "We just hope the governor does the right thing."

Ehrlich sought re-election in Maryland in a year when a nationwide wave of dissatisfaction with Republicans swept Democrats into power.

That meant he faced a major change in the mood of Maryland's electorate since he won in 2002. When Ehrlich was deciding to get into the governor's race that year, President Bush's approval rating in Maryland was above 80 percent, according to a Sun poll. By the time Ehrlich took office a year later, that number had dipped but was still well above 50 percent.

But this year, at a time when discontent over the Iraq war and scandals in the Republican-controlled Congress has tipped national sentiment to the Democrats, Bush's approval rating is in the 30s. Many voters said it was disgust with the national political situation that drove them to the polls - and to O'Malley - even though Ehrlich's popularity and job approval ratings remained high.

"I'm trying to vote the Republicans out of every seat I can think of," said Ester Neltrup, 51, of North Laurel. She noted the war in Iraq, the U.S.A. Patriot Act and abuse of detainees in the war on terrorism as her reasons.

For Adam Hovav, 30, of Cockeysville, disenchantment with the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress prompted him to vote almost exclusively Democratic, despite his belief that Ehrlich is a moderate.

"I hate to say that I was influenced by those campaign advertisements, but all those fliers that O'Malley put out of Ehrlich with his arm around Bush really sealed it for me," he said. "Ever since Bush has been in power, it feels like the entire nation has been regressing. It's been one debacle after another. And I think it reflects badly on the entire Republican Party."

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