ELLICOTT CITY – Charles Ecker’s chances of overcoming Ellen Sauerbrey in Maryland’s 1998 GOP gubernatorial primary are sketchy, Maryland state political observers say.
Ending months of speculation, the eight-year Howard County executive made it official on Wednesday: He announced he would seek the Republican nomination.
But while Ecker is a capable career politician, he may be too moderate and passive to attract a majority of primary voters, said Sen. Christopher McCabe, R-Howard. By contrast, Sauerbrey has a talent for getting voters fired up on conservative issues, he added.
Ecker “has to find a way to connect with primary voters, who tend to be the most active and conservative” in the party, said McCabe, who has not yet endorsed either candidate. “You have to motivate your base, and I think [Sauerbrey] is in a better position to do that.
Ecker acknowledged his come-from-behind position, but did not seem concerned.
“If I had been campaigning since 1994, my voter base would be pretty big too,” he said, laughing. “It’s just a matter of going out and meeting people and getting some name recognition.”
Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, thinks Ecker’s anonymity with primary voters actually may be an advantage. Sauerbrey’s reputation as a “career campaigner” may cost her points against a new, relatively unknown candidate, he said.
“He has more of a chance than people give him credit for,” Crenson said of Ecker. “He comes across as a non-politician.” Also, “for most people in the state, he’s going to be a fresh face, whereas the advantage Sauerbrey had as a newcomer will disappear.”
Ecker noted as much: “People do not want the same choice for governor in ’98 that they had in ’94.”
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, a Sauerbrey supporter, lauded Ecker’s record for public service, but said the executive historically has lacked Sauerbrey’s clear plan for where the party needs to head — an essential element, he said, of any successful Republican gubernatorial bid.
“She is the one who has urged Maryland to adopt a more friendly climate for generating jobs and improving business opportunities,” he said. “That’s been her push for 20 years.”
But Mike Davis, Ecker’s campaign chairman, countered that, for all her vision, Sauerbrey never has tested her ideas in an actual executive position. Ecker, meanwhile, has been implementing policy in Howard County for several years.
“He has a good track record of getting things done,” Davis said.
Ecker raised the same issue in his announcement. “Compare the record of my opponent with my record,” he said. “I haven’t just talked about fiscal responsibility, I’ve practiced it.”
Said Davis, “If people can accept his vision, they know that he will be working hard to accomplish it.”
At the moment, that vision is limited to general initiatives, such as balancing commercial development, making education a legislative priority and minimizing crime, according to Davis.
This lack of a specific itemized agenda is characteristic of Ecker’s campaigning style, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard. It also could cost him votes when he campaigns against candidates like Sauerbrey or Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who run on specific issues, Bobo said. And, should Ecker win the race, his non- specific platform also could turn out to make for bad policy, she added.
“If he runs true-to-form he won’t get beyond generalities,” she said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily good for government.”
Sauerbrey, for her part, welcomed the primary competition, saying in a press release that making the Republican nomination into a real contest “demonstrates both the growing strength and vibrancy of the Republican party and the weakness of the incumbent governor.”
McCabe agreed that, regardless of who wins, a little competition now and then is a healthy thing for Maryland Republicans, because it keeps the candidates on their collective toes.
A race “makes both candidates better able to compete in the general election,” he said, “because they’ve had to do so under the bright lights of the primaries.”
Representatives of Democratic gubernatorial candidates Glendening and Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann so far are not concerned about Ecker’s entry into the race.
Rehrmann’s campaign spokesman, George F. Harrison, said his candidate had developed a good relationship with Ecker as part of the “Big Seven” — leadership of Maryland’s largest counties — but that the GOP primary was not her current focus. “In reality, that is not a big concern for us as yet,” he said. And Michael Barnes, Glendening’s re-election chair, offered this blanket assurance: “We will run a strong race against any candidate.” -30-