State House contests go down to wire
GOP leaders scoff at Dems' goal to gain seats in tough cycle
It's been 24 years since a Democrat has represented the Lower Shore in the Maryland Senate.
Across the state in Frederick County, you would have to go back to 1974 to find the last time a Democrat has held the District 3 Senate seat and that was when its representatives were from Montgomery County.
Despite the GOP's dominance, Democrats have poured generous resources into picking up one or both seats, making them two of the most compelling legislative races in next week's general election.
"I feel that we're viable in the race, but I also know that it's a very unsettled political time in our country," said Del. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Dist. 38B) of Ocean City, who is battling Republican hotelier Michael J. James for the open seat vacated by longtime Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Dist. 38) of Westover.
Republicans, however, also see opportunities to increase their numbers by capturing the seats held by Sens. John C. Astle and James Brochin, whom they view as two of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
"I think it's going to be a year where people realize that if they want to get rid of the culture of corruption in Annapolis, they have to get rid of one-party rule," said Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship.
Top lawmakers from both parties are trying to balance defending the seats they currently hold with going after those they feel are winnable.
One political observer said the national anti-incumbent sentiment does not appear to have taken hold in Maryland as much as in other areas of the country.
"I know there is the argument going on out there that any non-incumbent will do, but I don't think that's true," said Laslo Boyd, a partner at Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies and a political consultant in Maryland for nearly three decades. "It's certainly not this tidal wave. The political landscape is going to look a lot like the way it did before the election."
Such an outcome would satisfy Democrats, who now hold 33 of 47 Senate seats and 104 of 141 House seats.
"It will be a successful election if we hold on to our very large, commanding majority," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg. "When you're that far up, the national tendency in a bad year like this would be to lose 20 seats or to lose 15 seats. We're not going to lose a big chunk of seats. We're going to take an almost-impossible-to-hold, commanding majority and hold on to it."
But his Republican counterpart believes Barve is being overconfident and ignorant of what he described as an "anti-monopoly, anti-establishment mood" across Maryland.
"I think they're playing defense in a way that they haven't played defense in a long, long time," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, who declined to give specifics on which districts are potential Republican pickups. "I think you're going to see people expressing their opinion that spending is out of control in Washington, D.C., spending is out of control in Annapolis, and they're going to want to see change. That bodes well for my side of the aisle."
In addition to ensuring their incumbents win re-election, House Democrats' chief goal is to keep all 16 open seats in their column, Barve said.
Two Democratic incumbents, Dels. B. Daniel Riley (D-Dist. 34A) of Edgewood and Ruth M. Kirk (D-Dist. 44) of Baltimore, were defeated in the primary election, and Republicans could flip Riley's seat.
O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby would not say how many GOP pickups would constitute a successful election, but said it's possible for the caucus to exceed its previous high of 43 members following the 2002 election.
"The only metric of success is what makes Maryland's government better and I believe not having a monopoly that feels like it's untouchable, as the current majority does, would be a measure of success for the citizens of Maryland and that's what we're striving for," he said.
It's critical that the GOP gain some ground in a year seen as favoring Republican candidates, said longtime Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.
"This is an election where the moon and the stars are properly aligned, and it presents an opportunity for them to establish some competitiveness in the legislature in terms of there being more Republican members," he said. "If it doesn't come to pass, that's very significant because then you say to yourself, How could it ever?'"
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told reporters on Wednesday that a 10- to 12-seat pickup in the House is not unreasonable. In the Senate, he predicted somewhere between a push and a four-seat gain.
But with Democrats making strong pushes on the Lower Shore and in Frederick County, as well as in Anne Arundel County's District 31, which was in Democratic hands prior to 2006, Republicans might have to settle for breaking even.
"I have been playing offense the whole way," said former Frederick Mayor Ronald N. Young, who is waging a strong challenge to Sen. Alexander X. Mooney (R-Dist. 3) of Frederick.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach is heavily invested in defeating Mooney, who is "being hit with everything but the kitchen sink," Kittleman said.
And Mathias recently held fundraisers in Baltimore and Annapolis a sign that his race is a top priority for Senate Democrats.
That Democrats in Maryland are even in position to play offense in a year when the party is bracing for losses nationwide speaks to its strength and the quality of its candidates, said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Dist. 15) of Germantown, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.
"Considering the political climate, getting a passing grade would be not to cede any ground," he said. "Getting an A-plus would be to make some gains."
Meanwhile, Republican challengers Ron Elfenbein and T. Kevin Carney are hoping to knock off incumbents Astle (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis and Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson, respectively.
Although Republicans have long talked about gaining five seats that would give them a veto-proof majority in the Senate, Kittleman tried to temper expectations for how he would measure victory on Tuesday.
"Picking up any seats makes us successful," he said. "Four years ago, we had a terrible Republican year and we stayed even, so I saw that as a success."