It’s been over twenty years since Maryland voted Republican in a presidential race, and even longer that Democrats have dominated the state’s congressional delegation and General Assembly. But the Free State has some interesting races dotting the political landscape and Republicans are confident they will taste some rare success.
Chief among those with national impact is the race for the First Congressional District seat. Freshman Democrat Frank Kratovil eked out a plurality win in 2008 buoyed by the impressive Democratic turnout for Barack Obama and a late endorsement from former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, who opted to cross party lines and support Kratovil over the man who defeated him in that February’s primary, State Senator Andy Harris. Gilchrest had represented the district as a moderate Republican since 1991, and many of his loyal supporters lent a hand to Kratovil’s effort.
Since being elevated to Congress, the former Queen Anne’s County state’s attorney has, to some extent, demonstrated the independence he promised voters during the 2008 campaign — most notably, voting against ObamaCare and joining forces with the fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democratic coalition. However, he also flip-flopped on cap and trade, stating he would vote no until a billion-dollar program to assist local farmers was included in the bill. Once that was added, he switched and voted for the measure. And while liberal Democrats grumble about his lack of support on ObamaCare and other key issues, no Democrat stood up to challenge him in the primary this year. (Oddly enough, Kratovil is the only Democrat in the Maryland delegation to not have a primary challenger.)
Meanwhile, undaunted by his close 2008 loss, last January Harris formally announced one of the worst-kept secrets in Maryland politics and threw his hat back into the ring, abandoning a Maryland Senate seat he’d held since 1998 to make a second bid for Congress.
Later, another well-funded entrant announced he would seek the GOP nod. Rob Fisher, a Cambridge businessman, made a splashy entrance into the race and has largely self-funded his campaign. But he hasn’t found a great deal of support among GOP ranks and Harris is widely expected to win the Republican primary handily.
Harris also has an advantage as the state Republican Party waived Rule 11, allowing the national party to contribute to his cause during a contested primary. This emphasized the importance of this particular race to national GOP hopes. Among all Democratic freshmen, Kratovil is thought to be among the most vulnerable for defeat in a district which John McCain carried handily.
The conventional wisdom for Maryland’s other seven congressional districts has those incumbents winning easily; a group which includes Maryland’s lone Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, DCCC head Chris Van Hollen, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. However, Hoyer has a dynamic black conservative Republican opponent in Charles Lollar, who has garnered national attention in his race to unseat Hoyer in the Fifth Congressional District.
That same conventional wisdom and polling data back up the assertion that Senator Barbara Mikulski is heading for a fifth term. While Harford County attorney Jim Rutledge and Queen Anne’s County Commission president Dr. Eric Wargotz are both actively seeking the support of conservative voters as they lead the pack for the GOP nod, they are also staring at the prospect of overcoming a nearly 30-point deficit against a popular, if not well-known nationally, incumbent.
Besides the prospect of returning the First District seat to GOP hands, Maryland Republicans are most enthused about returning one of their standard-bearers to Government House as Maryland’s newest governor. In April, former Governor Bob Ehrlich made it official that he would try to regain the office he lost to Martin O’Malley in 2006.
It would appear Ehrlich doesn’t have a tough sell to convince voters that economic conditions haven’t improved in the four years O’Malley has been in office — unemployment has just about doubled in the state and O’Malley’s Democrats rammed through a series of tax and spending increases back in 2007, shortly after he took office. Regardless, O’Malley’s administration has been plagued with the need to made budget cuts in the midst of the fiscal year when revenues were short of projections.
But Ehrlich doesn’t have a free ride to the GOP nomination, despite the fact the Maryland Republican Party also waived Rule 11 on his behalf. A spirited challenge has arisen from 33-year-old businessman Brian Murphy, whose candidacy was put on the map last week when Sarah Palin issued a statement endorsing Murphy for the governorship. Murphy claims that O’Malley already knows how to beat Ehrlich based on the 2006 campaign and fresh ideas are needed. While Ehrlich remains a prohibitive favorite, Murphy’s upstart bid could give an idea of just how much conservatives in the Republican ranks approve of Ehrlich’s ideas and moderate record.
Another question is how much help Ehrlich or Murphy would have in the Maryland General Assembly. With the Democrats holding a 104-37 bulge in the House of Delegates and 33-14 margin in the State Senate, the Republicans seek only to enable themselves to sustain vetoes and, if necessary, bring legislation directly to the floor. Those key numbers translate to picking up ten House seats and adding five senators to their ranks. However, all 188 seats are in play this year so gains are possible, particularly in ousting Democrats from GOP strongholds like the Eastern Shore and along the Pennsylvania border through the state’s western region.
Conservative Republicans also can gain control of the state’s political apparatus as local elections from county executive to the makeup of local party Central Committees are decided for this quadrennial cycle. Also key in this cycle is determining new congressional and state legislative districts based on the census numbers. With Democrats and their supporters already devising ways to eliminate Republicans from the political map, this election could signal either the death or rebirth of the Maryland GOP.