Cardin, O'Malley Win in Statewide Democratic Wave

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; A01

Maryland Democrats swept to victory in the major statewide races last night, as voters showed a deep unease about the direction of the country and a strong urge to return the state to its long tradition of Democratic leadership.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected the state's 61st governor, and veteran congressman Benjamin L. Cardin won a hard-fought race for U.S. Senate. Both were carried into office by a surge in turnout, including a robust showing from African Americans, widely viewed as the most pivotal Election Day voting bloc.

"For the working families of Maryland, it is time to move Maryland forward again!" O'Malley, 43, said shortly after midnight, after long minutes of deafening cheers from supporters.

Crowds at voting sites slowed election returns, and more than three hours after polls were scheduled to close, long lines of voters in Prince George's County still waited to cast ballots -- delays apparently due to a shortage of machines, not problems with the technology. The two major Republican candidates said those delays allowed enough doubt for them to wait before conceding.

"We're going to overtime," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told supporters in an eight-minute speech made shortly after midnight. He advised them to "stay tuned" as absentee and provisional ballots are counted over the next several days.

But large swaths of the uncounted ballots came from the Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore, leaving it all but certain that Ehrlich would be the first incumbent since 1951 to be unseated after one term.

Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele also pleaded for patience from his backers, but returns that had been counted last night suggested the affable lieutenant governor had made only narrow inroads with the voters he tried hardest to persuade, African Americans. Exit polls showed blacks voted for Cardin by a 3 to 1 ratio.

Across the board, Democrats appeared headed for victory. Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler easily prevailed in the race for attorney general, and Montgomery Del. Peter Franchot won the job of comptroller, the state's chief tax collector. Montgomery swept in Isiah "Ike" Leggett as the county's first African American county executive, and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson breezed to reelection.

Lawyer John Sarbanes (D), son of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), won Cardin's 3rd District seat, defeating Republican John White. The rest of Maryland's congressional delegation won easy victories last night.

Even in key state legislative races, including five targeted by Republicans, Democrats came out ahead, and the party appeared to have gained at least one Senate seat in Howard County.

After more than a year of political jockeying, primary skirmishes, television ads, endorsements and massive turnout efforts, the outcome in Maryland appeared to boil down to one central fact: The state is home to nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans.

In a year when Democrats have a brisk national gust at their backs, even an incumbent as popular as Ehrlich, in a state that's enjoying general economic well-being, appeared unlikely to return for a second term.

"Maryland is blue," said Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the state's longtime Senate president.

Exit poll results suggested that national issues were moving Maryland voters, especially in the U.S. Senate race. Nearly two-thirds of Cardin supporters surveyed, for instance, said they were casting their vote to send a message to President Bush.

Cardin, 63, said in an interview that although the race was a referendum on such national issues, the choice in Maryland was in many ways about the candidates themselves and about what he said was Steele's unwillingness to engage on issues.

"It came down to the fact that voters know me," he said. "They know my record, and they felt comfortable with the way I make decisions."

In the governor's race, Ehrlich could not maintain the level of support he garnered in 2002 from the state's moderate Democrats. And in an unusual twist, his defeat did not appear to stem from any discontent about his performance; many who rated the state's economy as strong abandoned him.

"In fairness, I think Ehrlich governed as best he could under the circumstances," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "The problem is he won in a very good cycle against a weak candidate and had to run for reelection against a very strong candidate in a bad cycle for Republicans. It shows how difficult it is in Maryland, even when you govern down the middle, to pull a rabbit out of a hat."

All four candidates in the marquee races crossed the state yesterday, trying to smoke out, cajole and, in some instances, deceive their way into every possible vote. The final hours of campaigning offered a dramatic climax for two of Maryland's most competitive and costly statewide contests.

At stake, beyond the individual races, was the fate of a Republican attempt to solidify the party's narrow foothold in Maryland, a state that has been dominated by Democrats for more than a century.

Four years ago, when Ehrlich was elected the state's first Republican governor in a generation, he declared, "Our time in the desert is over." His reelection and Steele's claiming of an open Senate seat were considered the next steps in establishing a real two-party system in Maryland.

The Senate contest put the spotlight on Steele, who employed off-beat ads, his Washington Rolodex and likable persona to mount one of the most vigorous challenges his party has offered in pursuit of a U.S. Senate seat.

He faced Cardin, a 10-term congressman from the Baltimore area and consummate political insider, whose campaign focused as much on Bush and the Iraq war as it did on his own agility with complex national policy questions.

During the campaign's closing weeks, the messages from all four camps grew increasingly coarse, as each candidate tried to break through in what polls were presenting as tightening contests. The vitriol played out largely on television -- with more than 15,000 ads at a cost of nearly $18 million airing in the Washington and Baltimore markets in the weeks since the Sept. 12 primary.

On Monday, Democratic leaders upbraided Ehrlich and Steele for fliers that suggested that the two Republicans had gained endorsements from three black, Democratic leaders.

Anger over the fliers compounded yesterday, when Democrats discovered that the GOP campaigns had bused in poll workers from Philadelphia to pass out the literature at voting precincts in Prince George's County and Baltimore.

Although both contests remained competitive, the general anti-Republican mood pervading the nation began to weigh on Ehrlich and Steele, who tried to tap national GOP connections for money while trying to avoid an affiliation with Washington as the climate worsened for their party.

"It's been a huge obstacle for them," said Ronald Walters, a politics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. "The war, especially, has been made it very hard for either of them to pick up traction in this environment."

Voters who said the Iraq war was extremely important to their decision supported Cardin by a 3-1 ratio, exit polling showed.

The governor's major advantages during the campaign were tied to his incumbency. For one, he spent most of his time on the road as Gov. Ehrlich, not candidate Ehrlich. Miller, the state Senate president, said that "four years of handing out grants and cutting ribbons" helped Ehrlich maintain high marks for popularity in opinion polls.

His stature also helped him raise more campaign cash than O'Malley, taking in what insiders said was roughly $18 million. O'Malley's fundraising consultant said she expects him to reach about $14 million in donations.

The money edge helped him keep his advertising on television for months. He put up a barrage of ads highlighting crime and low-performing schools in Maryland's largest city. That enabled him to turn the governor's race into a referendum on the two candidates' records, saying he had been an agent of change in Annapolis while Baltimore had languished.

As a result, despite holding a consistent lead in polls, O'Malley often appeared on the defensive, trying to persuade state voters that he had a solid record of progress tackling urban woes. At the same time, he attempted to portray Ehrlich as out of touch with working-class families.

Against this backdrop, the governor's former political partner launched his campaign for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).

Steele, the former chairman of the state GOP, campaigned as an independent force who would stand up to both parties. He showcased his charismatic personality more than any specific policy issue as he tried to sway black Democrats to ditch their traditional party affiliation.

Throughout the campaign, Steele, who has just four years in elective office, tried to turn his opponent's combined 40 years in Annapolis and Washington against him. He cast Cardin as an insider incapable of changing the status quo on Capitol Hill and out of touch with "real people."

Cardin, in turn, tried to make the contest a referendum on Bush and the war. Perhaps the most pivotal weapon in Cardin's arsenal was his initial vote against sending troops to Iraq. In his commercials, mailings and appearances, he told voters he "stood up to President Bush on the war" and reminded them that Steele had consistently supported the war. He painted Steele -- accurately -- as a man recruited and partially bankrolled by the president's allies.

The two marquee races overshadowed several down-ticket contests that ushered a new set of leaders into some of the state's key posts.

Franchot (D), a state delegate from Takoma Park, charged into the general election after an unexpected primary win over incumbent William Donald Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor and two-term governor widely viewed as the state's political patriarch. He faced Anne M. McCarthy (R), the first woman dean of the University of Baltimore's business school.

Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney, ran to replace 20-year Democratic incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr. as attorney general, pledging to put the office in a more aggressive posture to fight environmental crime and white-collar fraud. His opponent, Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle (R), campaigned as a crime fighter who would use the statewide post to toughen laws for sex offenders.

In Montgomery, Leggett will replace longtime County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), after defeating Republican Chuck Floyd and Independent Robin Ficker. Leggett's election, along with Johnson's reelection in Prince George's, means African Americans will run two of the state's most populous counties.

In Anne Arundel, the longtime sheriff, George F. Johnson IV (D), was in a tight race with maverick Republican Del. John R. Leopold. In Howard County, council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia) defeated council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) and independent candidate C. Stephen Wallis in a contest for county executive that also centered on growth.

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