A win built in the 'burbs

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Maryland Votes 2006

November 09, 2006|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN REPORTER

Four years ago, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first Republican in 36 years to capture the governor's mansion, racking up big leads in some of Maryland's fastest-growing suburbs.

Ehrlich's 66,000-vote victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend prompted some political observers to speculate in 2002 that Maryland had reached a political tipping point. Conservative sentiment in the state's growing exurbs, pundits said, finally had overwhelmed the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

However, Ehrlich's appeal among suburban voters weakened, contributing to his loss Tuesday to his Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

O'Malley, who attacked Ehrlich's record as governor and linked him with the unpopular war and economic policies of President Bush, picked up more suburban votes than his predecessor had in 2002.

Analysts said the turnabout appeared rooted in tepid support in conservative suburban strongholds, where voters failed to turn out at the levels they did four years ago, as well as a shift among self-described moderates. The latter group, which supported Ehrlich in the previous election, defected to the Democrats this week, motivated largely by opposition to the war, according to exit polls.

In a high-priced battle of ads, the O'Malley campaign focused on pocketbook issues, such as college tuition and utility bills, that held particular resonance with suburbanites.

"Mostly working-class, blue-collar men and soccer moms came back to O'Malley after going to Ehrlich over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It didn't have to be a lot of them ... but enough to keep [O'Malley] in range."

In the 2002 governor's race, Ehrlich, a four-term congressman from Baltimore County, carried his home jurisdiction by nearly 65,000 votes. In Central Maryland, he carried Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Harford and Howard counties, most of them by large margins.

This year, O'Malley and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's, racked up huge margins in the vote-rich jurisdictions of Baltimore City, and Prince George's and Montgomery counties, as Democrats have done in virtually every statewide election.

But, in addition, the Democratic ticket this year edged out the governor in Baltimore County by 344 votes - though absentee and provisional ballots have not been counted. O'Malley carried Howard by 2,200 votes and Charles by 1,800 votes - two other counties in the GOP column in 2002.

"The main reason I voted for O'Malley is because Ehrlich was just cutting social money too much to balance the budget," said George Ford, 73, of Columbia, who calls himself a moderate and unaffiliated voter. Ford faulted Ehrlich for raising college tuition and taxes.

"I think we're ready for new leadership," said Gail Doerr, 52, after casting her ballot for O'Malley on Tuesday at Pointer's Run Elementary School in Clarksville, Howard County.

The O'Malley-Brown ticket - in addition to winning Charles County in Southern Maryland, which is rapidly changing from rural to Washington bedroom suburb - cut into Republican margins in other suburban counties.

Traditionally Republican-voting Anne Arundel, for instance, gave Ehrlich only a 22,000-vote edge Tuesday, compared with the nearly 54,000-vote margin he enjoyed in 2002.

The Democratic surge in Maryland reflected a nationwide wave of unhappiness with President Bush and Republicans in general over the war in Iraq, corruption and the economy, said John T. Willis, senior research associate at the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore and former Maryland secretary of state.

"The conditions were ripe for a Democratic candidate to take advantage of a national perception," he said. Maryland's gubernatorial election results have tracked closely with the state's votes in presidential elections for the past 20 years, Willis pointed out, with the year Ehrlich beat Townsend being the lone exception.

"They ran an excellent campaign in 2002," Willis said of the Ehrlich ticket. "The economy had turned bad in 2001, things were in their favor. But in 2006 those same factors weren't there."

The O'Malley campaign sought to capitalize on those national trends and welcomed visits by national Democratic political figures such as former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

"There was this countrywide tsunami against Bush and the war, sleaze and other factors," said Donald F. Norris, another political scientist at UMBC. O'Malley also benefited, Norris suggested, from stronger support within his party and from a campaign strategy that did not concede the suburban votes to the Republicans.

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