Crucial Md. Vote to Mold New Political Landscape

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006; 8:32 AM

Maryland is a state where politicians get elected and tend to settle in. But Tuesday's party primaries are the first step in a dramatic reordering of the political hierarchy, one that will mean a new U.S. senator for the first time in decades and could result in new faces in every statewide office.

The changes will range from the state's delegation on Capitol Hill to the county administrative buildings, where several of the state's most enduring county executives are moving on. And there could be a generational shift, as even the state's most iconic politician -- 84-year-old Comptroller William Donald Schaefer -- is in what appears to be his tightest election battle.

"It's a benchmark year," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "We're talking about replacing the longest-serving senator in Maryland history; we'll have new executives in three of the state's largest counties; and at least one new congressman."

Busch was referring to retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who was first elected to public office 40 years ago and will have served in the Senate for 30. The low-key contest to replace him is the marquee race on the Democratic ballot. And in November, there will be new executives in Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, as well as a host of new legislators and council members across the state.

The new generation of Maryland leaders elected this fall "are the ones who will be faced with our toughest problems: how to solve the health-care crisis, how to restructure our budget, how to make college affordable," Busch said. It will be November before Marylanders know whether their overwhelmingly Democratic state has changed enough to reelect a Republican governor for the first time since the 1950s or to elect a GOP senator for the first time in a quarter-century.

But the party's leaders are thinking big. Chip DiPaula, who ran Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s groundbreaking campaign in 2002 and now serves as his chief of staff, said he believes the elections will swing the door open for Republicans, who have been out of power for most of the past century.

"We're looking at real [shared] government," he said.

Ehrlich is unopposed in the primary, as is his Democratic competitor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who leads in the polls. For all the change in the air, it is the first time in years that neither party's nomination for governor is contested. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) pulled out of the race in June.

The replacement for Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is retiring, will be of a younger generation. And Republicans in November will be looking to increase the gains they have made in recent years in the General Assembly, especially in the outer suburbs.

But some things about Maryland haven't changed much. With less than a third of the state's voters registered as Republicans and with few competitive battles, the party's contests Tuesday have drawn little notice.

And the Democratic tradition remains overwhelming in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where the primary is almost always the final say. Of 46 General Assembly, County Council and other seats chosen on a partisan vote in Montgomery, only two are held by Republicans. In Prince George's, none are.

Below are summaries of the principal races.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company