`A tough year to be a Republican'

Outlook

Maryland Votes 2006

November 09, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

One leading Maryland Democrat called the election "a perfect storm." Not only did the state Republican Party lose its incumbent governor and every other statewide contest, it took a drubbing in races all the way down to the local level.

In a result virtually nobody expected, the GOP faces a loss of as many as eight to 10 seats in the House of Delegates.

In the Senate, Republicans are either stuck at their 2002 level or have lost one seat. And in county-level races, the party suffered some wrenching losses that could affect its future bench strength.

"It's a major setback for the Maryland Republican Party," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"The Republicans have at least temporarily been shorn of some of their farm team," said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The pool of capable candidates is smaller."

The most devastating blow to Republican aspirations of parity was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s loss to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley after a single term. Almost as disappointing for the party was Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's defeat in a U.S. Senate contest at the hands of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. The Republicans also lost races for attorney general and state comptroller.

But the biggest debacle for the GOP might be what happened further down the ballot - in the legislative and local races so crucial to developing a corps of credible candidates for future elections.

In the House of Delegates, Ehrlich had proclaimed in June a goal of picking up 14 seats for his party. Instead, Democrats not only held their current strength, they were leading yesterday in races for 10 seats held by the Republicans. The potential Democratic gains spanned the state from Frederick to Harford to Charles counties and included pickups in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

"I never expected that they would pick up that number of seats. I don't think anybody did," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"It was a perfect storm," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County. "I thought we were going to be in the range of five or six."

If Democrats maintain their current leads in several tight races, Republicans could be reduced to their smallest totals in the legislature since their banner year of 1994.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip, attributed the apparent losses - some of which he hopes will turn around when absentee votes are counted - to a national "tide" against Republican candidates.

"It was not a good night for us," O'Donnell said.

In the Senate, Republican hopes of picking up five seats held by Democrats were dashed. Most of the targeted Democrats won comfortably, while Republicans lost the Howard County seat of Sen. Sandra B. Schrader to County Executive James N. Robey.

Depending on the absentee ballot count in a tight race for an open seat in Anne Arundel County, where Democrat Walter J. Shandrowsky held a 198-vote lead over Republican Bryan W. Simonaire, Democrats will either hold on to 33 seats in the 47-member Senate or gain one.

The Republican Party's damage went far beyond the legislature. Republicans could find bad news in almost every corner of the state - from a Democratic sweep of the Charles County Commissioners to a reversal of the previous 4-1 GOP advantage among Queen Anne's Board of County Commissioners.

A particularly bitter loss came in Howard County, where Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon ran a strong campaign and racked up the endorsements of all of the local newspapers. In the aftermath of his 10-point loss to Democratic Councilman Ken Ulman, Merdon said yesterday that he would get out of politics.

"We had the right messages, but it was the wrong year," said Merdon, who ran a slow-growth campaign.

Baltimore County, which effectively delivered victory to Ehrlich four years ago, would be the GOP's undoing this year. O'Malley all but eliminated Ehrlich's 2002 margin, while County Executive James T. Smith Jr. coasted to victory over a second-tier Republican candidate. And Democrats swept the five contested races for County Council.

Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said the apparent voter backlash against Republicans was particularly striking in Baltimore County. He pointed to the state's attorney's race, in which Republican Stephen Bailey lost by a surprising 56-44 margin despite having the support of the longtime State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor, who is retiring.

"It was a tough year to be a Republican running for anything," Bailey said yesterday. "State politics and national politics definitely bubbled up and reached a crescendo in the last few weeks, and I'm not sure there's anything I could have or would have done differently to counteract that."

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