By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Even if Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich loses his bid for governor, the passionate supporters he’s inspired in his close race in Tuesday’s general election could bring victory to fellow party members in State House races.
“I think it’s not a stretch at all to think that Ehrlich is going to have a tremendous effect on these races,” said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the Republican Party’s Maryland Victory 2002 campaign.
Ehrlich, he said, has energized voters put off by the last 30 years of Democratic governors.
“Out in the grass roots and in every corner of the state we’re seeing an awful lot of voter intensity,” Ronayne said. “They want to take a bath . . . people want a break from it.
Ehrlich is 4 percentage points ahead of Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the early leader, according to a poll released Wednesday by The (Baltimore) Sun and The Gazette newspapers.
A WRC-TV-Journal Newspapers poll released Thursday had Ehrlich maintaining a one-point lead over Townsend – a statistical dead heat.
His growing popularity is crucial to the Republicans’ belief that they will win new State House seats in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Democratic districts outside the party’s strongholds of Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.
Democrats hold a 34-13 margin in the Senate and a 106-35 advantage in the House. Ronayne predicts the GOP could gain four to six Senators and 12 to 15 Delegates.
Democrats said their traditional agenda will continue to attract voters, despite Ehrlich’s strong showing in polls. The party predicts it could gain one or two Senate offices and three to five House seats.
“Smart Growth is exceptionally popular, as is holding down growth,” said David Paulson, Maryland Democratic Party spokesman, of two key programs of the current Democratic administration. “In just about every area, education and health care (are important). Fortunately for Democrats we happen to be perceived as good on that issue.”
The Republican strategy will be tested in Anne Arundel County’s District 33, where Democrat incumbent Sen. Robert R. Neall faces GOP Delegate Janet Greenip.
Neall – appointed to the Senate as a Republican in 1996 – has yet to win election as a Democrat since he switched parties in 1999. The GOP has registered 6,700 more voters than Democrats in the district and Neall is the only Democrat incumbent in District 33.
“This is a hotly contested race, and I don’t think it’s a shock that Mr. Ehrlich is going to carry my district,” Neall said.
Experience gives Neall the advantage on the county’s two top issues: education and growth, he said. Neall is also a budget expert – a helpful credential with a predicted $1.7 billion budget deficit looming over the next General Assembly session. Neall was ranked the Senate’s third-most-effective legislator according to a January survey by The Gazette.
“I have a long-standing history, spanning three decades,” he said, “of being a community problem solver.”
Maryland voters, Greenip said, are ready for a change.
“This is a lot like 1994 in that people were rather disenchanted with what had happened in the past four years,” she said, and they’re looking for alternatives.
State House races have been influenced by a strong Republican candidate before, such as in 1994 when Ellen Sauerbrey narrowly lost to Democrat Parris N. Glendening, said Carol A. Arscott, a pollster. The GOP gained six senators and 16 delegates that year.
“Without a candidate that strong at the top of the ticket, a lot of those candidates (elected in 1994) would not have won,” she said. Many Republicans, she said, lost their re-election bids four years later when support for Sauerbrey lagged.
The GOP should not overestimate Ehrlich’s popularity, since a headlining candidate usually has limited pull in races with salient issues or candidates, said Richard Vatz, professor of mass communication and communications studies at Towson University.
“Generally speaking, the head of the ticket brings limited power,” he said. “Ehrlich probably helps more than Republican candidates in the past . . . but I don’t think he’s the dominant force in this election.”
One district where personalities might trump Ehrlich’s pull is the tight Senate contest in Frederick County’s District 3, where Republican incumbent Alex X. Mooney and Delegate C. Sue Hecht are campaigning on deep ideological differences.
The campaign may be the most expensive State House race in Maryland’s history. Mooney and Hecht have raised a combined $1.13 million.
Republicans are hoping a good showing at the polls in Allegany County could help Republican LeRoy Ellsworth Myers Jr. defeat the speaker of the Maryland House, Casper R. Taylor Jr., because conservative voters have connected him with the liberal Glendening agenda, Ronayne said.
Arscott also noted competitive Senate races in Howard County and the Eastern Shore.
In Howard’s District 13, Republican incumbent Sandra B. Schrader, appointed to succeed Martin G. Madden earlier this year, is facing a strong Democratic challenger with years of experience in Democrat C. Vernon Gray, a longtime county councilman.
In District 36, which includes parts of Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, GOP challenger E.J. Pipkin is looking to unseat Democrat Sen. Walter M. Baker, the powerful and outspoken chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
A Republican majority in either house is not possible, Arscott said, but the GOP has a chance at winning enough Senate seats, 16 total, to threaten the Democrats with filibuster.
The parties also have a wish list of hoped-for victories.
Democrats want House District 9B, where Democrat Kenneth Holniker is looking to break the Republican hegemony in Carroll County against incumbent Delegate Susan W. Krebs.
Recent County Council elections prove the district has grown more moderate, Paulson said.
Other Democrat targets, he said, include Republican incumbents Sen. Jean W. Roesser, who faces Democrat Rob Garagiola, and Delegate Jean B. Cryor, in Montgomery County’s sharply redrawn District 15.
Republican John Cluster Jr. could win Democrat Thomas L. Bromwell’s former seat in Baltimore County’s District 8, Ronayne said, and the GOP team of Senate nominee Andy Smarick and House nominees Nancy Almgren, Michael Collins and Herb McMillen might sweep District 30 in Anne Arundel County – currently an all- Democrat district.
Anne Arundel County House seats, such as that held by Democratic Delegate Joan Cadden in District 31, Ronayne said, might switch parties.
The old political adage is the election depends on who shows up at the polls on Election Day.
Voters who normally do not vote, or do not vote Republican, could turn out for Ehrlich, Ronayne said.
Democrats expect rural loyalists will turn out, in part, because Ehrlich’s campaign has put the party’s power at stake.
“We’re hoping for a very high turnout,” Paulson said. “We know when that happens, we win.”