How can a Republican win?
Upset: Odds are against it, but many see this year's Maryland gubernatorial
race as an
opportunity for the GOP.
By Michael Hill
August 4, 2002
The last time it happened, Spiro T. Agnew was considered the liberal in the race.
That would be the last time a Republican was elected governor of Maryland. The year was 1966, and Agnew was the man.
Though he would go down in political history as Richard M. Nixon's hatchet
man -- calling the press "nattering nabobs of negativism" was one of his
choice lines --
and in legal history for resigning as vice president and pleading guilty to taking bribes, that was not his image when he ran for governor.
Agnew was the progressive county executive of Baltimore County who had
just taken the politically dangerous step of championing a fair-housing
would go down to defeat in a referendum.
His Democratic opponent in the governor's race, who emerged from a crowded
and divisive primary, was George P. Mahoney. The theme of his campaign
"Your Home Is Your Castle," a not-so-subtle hit on anti-discrimination fair-housing laws.
Agnew's victory repeated the political dynamic of the previous Republican
trip to the governor's mansion: Theodore R. McKeldin got the support of
labor and civil
rights groups to beat Preston Lane in 1950.
Suffice it to say that if Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. makes it to Annapolis,
it won't be by the same path. "That's all such ancient history," pollster
Carol Arscott says of those
previous Republican victories.
In the decade after Agnew's win, Maryland's Democratic Party underwent
a sea change with the emergence of people like Barbara A. Mikulski, Steny
and Paul S. Sarbanes. And the state's Republican party ceased to be in the hands of moderates like Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias.
That, combined with the character of the state's electorate, turned
Maryland into one of the most consistently Democratic states in the nation.
The state that almost
chose George Wallace in its Democratic presidential primary in 1964 -- and did in 1972 -- now rivals Massachusetts as the most reliable member of the Democratic
column on Election Day.
But as the fall election season approaches, most agree that the right combination of events could lead to an Ehrlich upset of Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
"It would take harmonic convergence," is the way Arscott, who has been active in Republican campaigns, puts it.
On paper, it seems an impossible task. Democrats have about a 2-to-1
margin among registered voters. Almost 29 percent of the Maryland's population
African-American, a bloc that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. The state's population anchors of Baltimore and the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and
Prince George's counties seem solidly Democratic, apparently precluding a Republican statewide victory.
But most agree that Ellen R. Sauerbrey showed with her near-defeat of Parris N. Glendening in 1994 that it can be done.
For one, voter registration figures are thought to be deceptive, skewed
by the fact that in this heavily Democratic state, voters of all persuasions
Democrats so they can vote in the Democratic primary because it is so often the deciding election.
"There are plenty of closet Republicans registered as Democrats," says
Herbert Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster.
"The rise of
independence in voting means that registration is a very imperfect predictor of voting behavior. If we had open primaries, voter registration would fall close to parity
in five years."
The black vote is considered a larger hurdle for a Republican.
"When 25 percent of the voters are African-American and they traditionally
give Democrats the vast majority of their votes, that's a tough nut to
When Sauerbrey fell only a few thousand votes short in 1994, a low black
turnout was seen as the key to that near-upset. Glendening learned his
lesson and focused
on civil rights issues -- he was accused of playing the race card -- four years later, got a big black turnout and secured an easy victory over the same opponent.
Ehrlich has made his approach clear -- he is confronting the issue head
on, naming an African-American, Michael S. Steele, as his running mate
and openly courting
the black vote. So far, it has worked, as his support among blacks has crept up to 13 percent according to the latest Sun poll -- still a small number, but higher than
Republicans have been registering.
"One way Ehrlich can win is by making further inroads into the African-American
vote," says Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins
"By my calculations, if he gets up to 20 percent of the black vote, he will have enough [with] the white vote to win. But that's going to be a stretch."
Even if Ehrlich is not able to get that many black votes, he might be
able to reduce the number of blacks who go to the polls to vote against
him -- as many did to
vote against Sauerbrey last time around.
"Ehrlich has got to neutralize the race issue," says Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Most analysts figure that as the election nears, the Townsend campaign
will emphasize Ehrlich's votes and stands on issues that draw the disapproval
of the NAACP
and other civil rights organizations -- in many instances, the same votes and positions that sank Sauerbrey four years ago.
"Townsend has incredible legitimacy on civil rights issues," says Smith. "She's going to blow Ehrlich away on that."
The hope of the Ehrlich campaign is that the presence of Steele and
the groundwork he is laying with African-Americans will take the sting
out of those attacks.
Arscott points out that Ehrlich is not hampered by an unpopular Republican national image among blacks -- which was the case when Newt Gingrich was the party's
leading man -- but is instead helped by the more inclusive approach of President Bush.
Ehrlich is also aided by not having a contest in the Republican primary.
"No one is out there pulling him to the right to make him win that primary,"
says Crenson. "He
doesn't have to play to an audience in a way that's going to lose him votes in the general election. He can act like a moderate Republican preparing for the general
Crenson also says that Ehrlich's stance in favor of abortion rights
will help him close the gender gap that hinders Republicans with women
voters -- especially going
up against a female candidate.
Of course, Townsend will also be coming into the election without a bruising primary fight that could have damaged her chances.
Ultimately, Norris says it will come down to who can turn out the voters.
If Ehrlich can get the Baltimore suburbs, the Eastern Shore and Western
Maryland to come
out in droves while keeping turnout low in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, then he can win. The mirror image of that turnout would
sweep Townsend into office, Norris says.
Arscott says Ehrlich could win simply because Republicans sense that
it's possible. "I don't get the sense of a tremendous amount of urgency
among Democrats," she
says. "Republicans are highly motivated. ... I don't know if I ever remember the party this united."
There are a multitude of variables that have yet to come into play --
performance in debates, the Kennedy factor, the role of Baltimore Mayor
Martin O'Malley, the
economy, the conduct of the campaigns.
"I think it's going to be a close election," says Smith. "The real guns haven't been fired yet."
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun