ANALYSIS

Democratic Voters in Washington Suburbs Solidify Their Power in Md., Va. Elections

Martin O'Malley was rolling up his largest vote margins in Montgomery and Prince George's.
Martin O'Malley was rolling up his largest vote margins in Montgomery and Prince George's. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The Washington suburbs on both sides of the Potomac turned a deeper shade of Democratic blue yesterday, leading the way in defeating Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation and turning against Virginia Republican incumbent Sen. George Allen.

Most striking in yesterday's returns was the continued success of Democrats at the top of the ticket in the Northern Virginia suburbs. The region in the past three years has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee, the Democratic governor and yesterday supported Democratic Senate nominee James Webb in his too-close-to-call challenge of Allen.

Allen lost the region by 30,000 votes when he won his Senate seat six years ago; yesterday, he doubled that deficit in Fairfax County alone.

In Maryland, Democratic Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley rolled up huge vote margins over Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the state's largest jurisdictions. The same was true for Democratic Senate nominee Benjamin L. Cardin in his win over Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

"What's striking is the increasing power in statewide elections of the Washington suburbs," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist. In both states, "the reality is what had been the Republican model just isn't going to work any longer."

If Northern Virginia and the close-in Maryland suburbs are increasingly different from their respective states, they are also looking more and more like each other. Both are affluent, more liberal, the engines of their state's economies, diverse and increasingly growing their immigrant populations. Both account for about a third of their state's vote.

Montgomery and Prince George's, the state's most "urban" suburbs, have long been Democratic strongholds. The changes in Northern Virginia have come with the region's increasing density, which demographers say favors Democrats, as well as new residents from around the country and the world, drawn by booming economies driven by high-tech industries.

In Virginia, Dunn said, the GOP will need to rethink how it approaches the suburbs.

"Even if Allen does pull this out," Dunn said, "this is the last time the Republicans can assume they can win it everywhere else, because Northern Virginia is becoming the dominant power in the state."

Exit polls reinforced what has become an increasing split between those who live north of the Rappahannock River and those who live south.

Two-thirds of Northern Virginians disapproved of the war in Iraq, and the same proportion thought President Bush was doing a poor job -- far more than voters in the rest of the state. The constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was approved statewide by a 14 percentage point margin -- would have gone down to defeat if just Northern Virginians were voting.

And exit polls showed that the region, where most of the state's immigrants live, were much more likely to say that illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for legal status than be deported.

Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III said Northern Virginia, though, should not be mistaken for a Democratic haven. His victory -- albeit by the smallest margin since he took the seat from a Democrat in 1994 -- and that of neighboring Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf shows that the region's voters look for candidates they can identify with, no matter the party.

"You've got to take a look at the context of this [Democratic] year," Davis said. "This is one of those awful years you live to survive."

He said that Republican presidential hopefuls such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani would be attractive candidates in Northern Virginia, and Republican Sen. John W. Warner remains extremely popular.

"The difficulty is that we haven't had a Northern Virginian on the [Republican] statewide [ballot] since 1981," he said.

Davis pointed out that even as Allen lost Loudoun and Prince William counties, jurisdictions he carried in 2000, a Republican was elected chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

In the Maryland suburbs, Ehrlich had worked hard to try to increase his support from four years ago, but early returns showed it to be a mostly futile effort. The close-in suburbs often are accused of paying more attention to Washington than Annapolis, and the national Democratic tide certainly seemed as strong there as anywhere.

So strong was the Democratic sentiment in Montgomery that it swept out one of the county's longest-serving Republican politicians, County Council member Howard A. Denis (Potomac-Bethesda), and threatened the county's only Republican legislator, Del. Jean B. Cryor. If both lose, neither Montgomery nor Prince George's will have an elected Republican officeholder.

In addition, Democratic trends showed up in Howard and Charles counties, jurisdictions that Ehrlich won four years ago. He lost both this time, and increasingly diverse Charles looked more and more like an extension of the close-in Maryland suburbs, with Democrats taking most of the county offices.

Frostburg State University political science professor John Bambacus said the results showed that Democratic efforts to build beyond the party's base in the Big Three -- Montgomery, Prince George's and the city of Baltimore -- were successful.

"The Democrats still work those three counties very hard," said Bambacus, a former GOP state senator. "But the theme this time around was they wanted to represent all Marylanders."

Although the D.C. suburbs strongly supported O'Malley and Cardin, Dunn predicted that this election would mark the last time two politicians from Baltimore would be at the top of the ticket.

The rising stars of the party, she said, include two politicians from Montgomery -- Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot and Attorney General-elect Douglas F. Gansler -- and Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown from Prince George's.


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