By Amy Dominello and Dan Odenwald
ANNAPOLIS – Less than a month ago, Gail Ewing was preparing to retire from public office. The Democrat was leaving the Montgomery County Council in search of a calmer life. Maybe a vacation. Perhaps teaching.
Then the phone call came. Her party needed her. Donald Leo Toker Jr., the reluctant Democratic nominee for state Senate from western Montgomery County, was withdrawing from the race.
“The party drafted me” to challenge GOP state Sen. Jean Roesser in District 15, Ewing said. “They knew if anybody could win this race, it was me.”
Democrats say Ewing’s entry could alter the number of Republican seats picked up Tuesday in the General Assembly – where the GOP gained 21 seats four years ago. Republicans now hold 41 of the 141 seats in the House of Delegates and 15 of 47 seats in the Senate.
Maryland Republicans are predicting the GOP will pick up seats in both chambers of the state legislature, and Democrats aren’t disputing that.
How many remains the question.
Democratic Majority Leader John A. Hurson of Montgomery County believes the GOP could gain at least two seats in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate.
But House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard and Montgomery counties, predicted the GOP could gain up to six seats in the House, and one in the Senate. “If we do really well, it would be the first time in 80 years we would have a two-party system,” he said.
Not only are the numbers changing, but the ideology of the GOP membership may shift, too. Hurson said the loss of two moderate Republican senators could affect dynamics within the party.
Senate Minority Leader F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, and Minority Whip John W. Derr, R-Frederick and Washington counties, both lost their seats in the primaries to more conservative Republicans.
Boozer was defeated by Andrew P. Harris, a physician from Cockeysville, and Derr was defeated by Alexander X. Mooney, of Frederick, a retired vice president for a conservative nonprofit group. Both Harris and Mooney are expected to win their seats, Burton said, because they are running in majority-Republican districts.
“In the Senate, we’ll have both a new minority leader and whip, so we could possibly see a new type of conservative Republican leadership,” Hurson said.
Kittleman disagreed, saying the Republican caucus will remain moderately conservative, despite the loss of Boozer and Derr.
If the Republicans do well on Tuesday, as predicted, it would be part of a national trend in which southern states – once a bastion of Democrats – are becoming more conservative, said Donald F. Norris, a politics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “While the state’s registration is overwhelmingly Democratic, the voting isn’t,” he said.
Of Maryland’s 2.8 million registered voters, 58 percent are Democrats, 30 percent are Republicans and 12 percent are other. Twelve years ago, 67 percent of the state’s 2.1 million registered voters were Democrats, 25 percent were Republicans and 8 percent were other.
Turnout could be key, Roesser said. Norris agreed.
A heavy voter turnout on Tuesday would bode well for Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the Democratic ticket, Norris said.
A low voter turnout, however, would tend to favor GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey and the Republicans. It would indicate Democrats are staying home, and Republicans, who tend to be faithful voters, could swing the election, Norris said.
Jim Burton, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said regardless of the turnout, the GOP will fare better than Democrats in rural areas, such as western and southern Maryland.
Among the contests expected to be close, according to Republican and Democratic party officials, include:
* In District 2B, Democratic Del. D. Bruce Poole, a lawyer from Hagerstown, is fighting for his seat against 26-year-old Republican challenger Chris Shank.
Poole, 39, former House majority leader, nearly lost his seat in 1994. He beat Richard D. Wiles by only 76 votes. “I know I spent too much time in Annapolis and not enough at home,” Poole said, calling the election a “learning experience.”
Shank said voters in his district have grown tired of Democratic policies. “Del. Poole has not been doing his job,” he said. “The Republican Party has the people with the ideas.”
* In Baltimore’s 6th District, Sen. Michael J. Collins, 58, a Democrat first elected to the House in 1978, is battling Republican Del. Kenneth C. Holt.
Lamenting the Democratic stronghold in the State House, Holt, 47, said he wanted to infuse a “new thought process” in Annapolis. “It’s tragic for a ’70s politician to go into the new millennium as our district’s senator,” he said.
* In District 15, Republican Del. Richard La Vay from western Montgomery County is facing a strong challenge from David B. Dashefsky, a 22-year-old Yale graduate. Incumbent Delegates Mark K. Shriver, D-Bethesda, and Jean B. Cryor, R-Potomac, are expected to easily win reelection.
La Vay, however, is considered vulnerable because of attacks on him by Dashefsky, who charges the delegate with habitual absenteeism.
“My opponent hasn’t been very attentive,” Dashefsky said, adding La Vay missed 15 percent of the floor votes during the 1997 legislative session.
La Vay, 45, said he missed votes when tending to his dying father.