On GOP night, Maryland stays blue

Our view: The state's Democratic lean is an anomaly

November 03, 2010

Don't let Republican state Sen. Andy Harris' victory over Rep. Frank Kratovil in the 1st Congressional District fool you; this was a terrible year for Maryland Republicans. Gov. Martin O'Malley beat former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by twice as many votes as he did in 2006. Sen. Barbara Mikulski cruised to a 62-36 victory, nearly as large a margin as she earned six years ago at a time when Maryland voters were motivated to oust President George W. Bush. Other than Mr. Kratovil, none of Maryland's Democratic incumbents in Congress dipped below 60 percent of the vote. Democrats lost a few seats in the House of Delegates but, depending on absentee ballots, could actually pick up two seats in the Senate.

How can it be that in a year when Republicans swept contests from coast to coast, Maryland remained as Democratic as ever?

Democrats may be tempted to look to Maryland for lessons on how to replicate their success elsewhere. There's no question that something different was going on here than in other parts of the country.

Mr. O'Malley stuck with President Barack Obama on health care reform and the stimulus — and wasn't shy about it — yet he improved on his performance compared to Mr. Ehrlich in 16 of the state's 24 jurisdictions, including Maryland's populous urban centers, suburbs and rural counties. Of particular note, in a year when African-American turnout nationwide didn't come close to matching its levels from 2008, Mr. O'Malley managed impressive vote totals from Maryland's majority-black jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Between the two, he netted nearly 65,000 more votes against Mr. Ehrlich than he did four years ago.

Even Mr. Kratovil's loss can't be that encouraging for Republicans. His district was not a marginal one that Democrats managed to pick up during a stellar 2008; it's one that was designed specifically to incorporate as many Republican voters as possible so as to help elect more Democrats in the rest of the state. That he ever won at all was a miracle for Democrats. Mr. Harris' 13-point margin of victory sounds impressive until you consider that Sen. John McCain beat President Obama in that district by 19 points. Mr. Harris benefited from a massive infusion of outside cash, waged what was essentially a two-year campaign and ran in a banner Republican year, but he was still unable to match the performance of a presidential nominee who invested virtually no effort in Maryland.

The seat is likely safe in Mr. Harris' hands for the foreseeable future, but it doesn't indicate a growing Republican tide on the Eastern Shore. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway had been considered endangered because of his votes on taxes — he supported all of the tax and spending measures during Mr. O'Malley's 2007 special legislative session — but he was the top vote getter in his district. One of the Senate seats Democrats might pick up is also in the heart of Mr. Harris' district.

All this prompted Mr. O'Malley's campaign manager, Tom Russell, to call Maryland "a success story to be studied." He added: "A lot of people will be looking to see what was the difference here."

To those Mr. Russell was referring to, we're afraid we have bad news; the Maryland formula can't very easily be replicated elsewhere. Certainly, Mr. O'Malley ran a strong campaign against a surprisingly lackluster effort by Mr. Ehrlich. And early voting totals suggest the Democratic Party did a good job of getting out its voters — and the state Republican Party, just now clawing back from years of internal divisions and financial disarray, didn't. But other elements of Maryland's blue tide would be tough to put in place elsewhere in time for the 2012 elections.

Democrats didn't do well here just because of tactics. They also benefited from decades of near-total control of state government, and many local governments, too. That means the GOP has few talented and experienced candidates ready to run for major offices.

They also got lucky in that Mr. O'Malley's opponent was the same person he defeated four years before. Mr. Ehrlich may have had a hard time benefiting from the anti-incumbent fervor because he practically is an incumbent himself, and he heightened the effect by making his campaign all about restoring things to the way they were four years ago. Voters may not be happy now, but they weren't happy then, either.

And finally, unless the Democrats can move the nation's capital, they won't be able to repeat what was probably the single biggest reason why Maryland swam against the national tide. The source of the great energy behind this midterm election was dissatisfaction with — even hatred of — the federal government. To ask why that didn't catch on in Maryland is like wondering why a national movement against corn wouldn't get a lot of votes in Iowa. Anti-government rhetoric isn't going to cut it in a state where so many people work for the government or government contractors, or have friends and family who do.

For Democrats, Maryland was a happy blip on what was otherwise a dismal night, but they shouldn't read anything more into it than that.

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