WASHINGTON – When Republican Bob Ehrlich beat a Kennedy for the governor’s seat in 2002, the triumph was expected to ignite confidence among conservatives.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s defeat, the conventional wisdom said, signaled a new paradigm in Maryland, where the last Republican to occupy the governor’s mansion was Spiro Agnew in 1966. Maryland was hailed as a microcosm of America, no longer bound by one-party rule but split between two political forces.
“In the next four years, there shouldn’t be a Democrat left on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland,” Jim Dornan, a consultant and then-close adviser to Ehrlich’s running mate, Michael Steele, told the Washington Post in November 2002.
That never happened. Democrats, if anything, have gotten stronger, and should Ehrlich regain his former post in this year’s gubernatorial race, political observers say he could make some small headway for the GOP, but not the wholesale change predicted then.
In the General Assembly alone, Democrats wield a roughly 3-to-1 majority over Republicans. Democrats now hold every statewide elected office. Meanwhile, polls show Gov. Martin O’Malley leading by as much as 14 points over Ehrlich.
Dornan, now an operative working on John Raese’s senatorial campaign in West Virginia, acknowledged as much on Tuesday.
“Obviously, I was dead wrong,” he said of his prediction in 2002. “After Ehrlich’s victory there was that hope,” he said. “But now (Maryland) is a really tough state to be a Republican in.”
Part of what dampened the mood, contends St. Mary’s University political scientist Todd Eberly, was redistricting, an increasingly potent force in Maryland politics since former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening last managed the sculpting of the state’s legislative boundaries in 2001.
“If you look at Maryland’s legislative districts you would think that an over-caffeinated 3-year-old with a crayon created those lines,” Eberly said. “But what you would then discover,” he continued, “is that it was a very sophisticated computer that helped redraw those lines.”
Redistricting in Maryland is largely controlled by the governor, who must draft a legislative districting plan after each decennial census to better reflect population shifts. That draft goes to both the Senate president and the speaker of the House of Delegates for ratification, both of whom are now Democrats. Congressional districting, meanwhile, is handled as a regular bill in the General Assembly and it may be vetoed by the governor.
David Canon, who authored a book on the topic of redistricting, agreed with Eberly’s “crayons” point.
“I think my favorite state is Illinois,” he said. “It looks like a rabbit on a skateboard.”
Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke of the systemic failure that is redistricting.
“The system is absolutely broken when you have the politicians drawing their own districts,” Canon said. One solution, he offered, may be found in the form of bipartisan commissions used in states like Iowa and New Jersey.
In 2001, the state’s congressional districts were split down the middle — four Republicans and four Democrats. Today, Democrats enjoy seven seats, with just the 6th District held by a Republican, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett in Western Maryland.
“Oh, it’s a red district in a blue state,” Bartlett said, matter-of-factly. “I guess because we are farther away from the metropolitan areas and more rural,” he reasoned.
Democratic dominance remains in the rest of Maryland, Bartlett said, because of two constituencies.
“One of those is the people in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County who are getting things from the federal government,” he said. “And the other is all of those quite wealthy people who live in the big McMansions in Montgomery County who also benefit from big government because there are more jobs for them.”
Bartlett, a nine-term Republican, said he expects more of the same from those in control of the electoral easel.
“To make my district less Republican, they’d (Democrats) make other districts more Republican,” he said. “I’m not sure they’d want to do that.”
“My guess is that they will be conservative in redistricting, and not weaken present Democratic districts.”
“Roscoe’s district is a very unusual district because it goes out toward Western Maryland and so it’s kind of geographically protected, and similar to the Eastern Shore,” said former 4th District Rep. Tom McMillen, a Democrat.
McMillen knows a thing or two about the topic, having lost his own seat to congressional redistricting in 1992. In that year, under a federal mandate, the top lawmakers chiseled out a majority-black district in the Washington suburbs, which effectively drew McMillen into a duel with Republican Wayne Gilchrest for the Eastern Shore.
“What you do all in between,” McMillen said of Maryland’s core, “will be up to the governor to try to put together districts that obviously support his candidates, or his party.”
Yet regardless of an O’Malley victory, Laura Hussey, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said there’s not much left for Democrats to accomplish.
“It’s hard to imagine that Democrats can improve upon what they’ve already (achieved),” she said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Center Maryland columnist Josh Kurtz described Maryland this way: “Change is the exception here, not the rule. … And the fact is, the last few election cycles here have produced more change than Maryland is used to.”
Kurtz reiterated that in a telephone interview Thursday.
“I think the Democrats will do everything they can to maintain the status quo, or even try to carve out a few more districts for themselves,” he said, pointing to the Eastern Shore, Maryland’s lone swing district, where polls show Republican Andy Harris inching ahead of Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil.
Still, few see much changing in Maryland over the next decade, so long as Democrats control the state’s core.
“The process by which districts are drawn today is, in many ways, an affront to the Democratic system,” Eberly said. Republicans in charge in other states are no less guilty, he pointed out.
“From the Republicans’ perspective, it would almost be malpractice for Ehrlich not to restructure (Maryland’s districts) to better reflect our state’s political diversity.”