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Governor and U.S. Senate Losses Just the Tip of State GOP Collapse

By Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele conceded defeat in quick succession yesterday, putting an end, at least for now, to the state's four-year experiment with two-party government.

As election returns began to solidify yesterday, the scope of the Republican Party's setback in Maryland emerged.

Not only did the GOP lose its coveted hold on the governor's office to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and cede the open U.S. Senate seat to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, but the party also lost significant ground in the legislature and dropped key seats in the swing jurisdictions of Charles and Howard counties.

Republicans even saw their last seats in the close-in Washington suburbs slip away: County Council member Howard A. Denis and Del. Jean B. Cryor (Montgomery) both lost.

"It was a wipeout," said Gail Ewing, a former Democratic council member in Montgomery. "I am stunned. Everyone I know is stunned that we have no Republicans left."

Although some chalked up the defeat to the national Democratic tide, the state's ample supply of political analysts said yesterday that other factors contributed.

An array of developments hurt Republicans, including aggressive union activism, an effective Democratic turnout operation, Maryland's shifting demographics and frustration with gridlock in the State House. Steele's pursuit of African American voters fell flat, and Ehrlich's attempts to paint Baltimore as an urban wasteland might have backfired, they said.

Turnout, at an estimated 54 percent, was lower than in the last governor's race but favored Democrats in regions where the Republican ticket led in 2002.

O'Malley attributed that to his campaign's organizational efforts and the help of local officials.

"I knew that we had an army out there in the field," he said at a news conference yesterday afternoon. "That didn't happen by itself."

Neither Ehrlich nor Steele attempted to offer an assessment, choosing instead to dissect their defeats in private and thank their supporters in public.

Ehrlich met with reporters briefly, standing in a light rain in front of Government House, the 54-room mansion where he has lived since becoming the state's first Republican governor in a generation.

"I've had the ride of my life," Ehrlich said as his wife, Kendel, stood at his side with their toddler son, Joshua, in her arms. "I've tried to conduct myself with dignity and a little bit of a sense of humor. And we obviously tried to push the state forward."

Ehrlich thanked about two dozen advisers who stood under umbrellas. He said that during a brief phone conversation with O'Malley, he offered to help "in any way possible" with the transition.

Two hours later, Steele strode into a State House reception room crowded with teary-eyed staff members to formally concede and to thank Marylanders for making his four years of service a "unique blessing."

"I asked for six years as a U.S. senator; that's all I ever wanted," he said. "But the people thought otherwise, and I trust them in their judgment."

Although both men took a night to digest the election returns, their races were not particularly close. The margins in the Washington suburbs, especially, were resounding.

Ehrlich lost in Prince George's County by more than 100,000 votes; Steele lost in Montgomery by a similar margin.

Voters turned away from the governor, even in the places where he was strongest in 2002. The most dramatic drop came in the Baltimore suburbs and central Maryland, where Ehrlich won 55 percent of the vote, compared with 65 percent in his matchup with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In Western Maryland, his support dipped 8 points to 60 percent and in Southern Maryland, by 7 points to 53 percent.

The results made Ehrlich a political rarity: an incumbent governor who lost despite generally sunny favorability ratings and a public that said he was doing a good job.

"The reason it's hard to think of others is because there aren't many," said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. His staff came up with only the late Ann Richards, the Texas Democratic governor defeated in 1994 by George W. Bush. The conditions were the same: a highly partisan year in a highly partisan state, albeit with the parties reversed.

O'Malley's communications director, Steve Kearney, said the national climate "didn't hurt, but voters are smart enough to make decisions based on what they want from their state government."

That viewpoint was bolstered by exit polls suggesting that a majority of voters had their minds made up for more than a month. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said that four years of watching Ehrlich wrangle with the legislature left many voters "convinced he was trying to bring the dynamics of Washington to Annapolis."

Other aspects of Ehrlich's campaign might also have backfired, said Timothy Maloney, a former Prince George's delegate who advised O'Malley. Most notably, he said, were the election-eve fliers that seemed to try to trick voters into believing that Ehrlich had the support of prominent African American leaders.

Maloney said he believed that tactic enraged and energized black voters. "It was hugely offensive," he said. He also said he thought that some African Americans in Baltimore felt wounded by Ehrlich's television ads, which were intended to attack O'Malley's leadership of the city schools and his crime-fighting effort but portrayed the city as an urban wasteland.

The governor's aides attributed the loss to strong anti-Republican sentiment nationally. In another year, issues such as crime and education would have been at the forefront, and an incumbent with high approval ratings would have won, they said.

"It's simple math," said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "A governor with near 60 percent approval rating has lost the election due to a hostile national climate."

Certainly, the pull of national politics exerted itself on the Senate race. Voters were more convinced by the Democratic message that "Steele was just another vote for Bush" than they were interested in sussing out Steele's subtle differences from the White House, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

"When voters are angry, they don't parse the argument," she said. "If you're name ended in 'R' this year, you had a problem."

Steele's aggressive effort to make inroads with black Democrats did not appear to make much of a difference. He drew support from 25 percent of black voters, and Ehrlich tapped only 15 percent of the group. But Steele's performance in Prince George's was no better than that of four years ago, when he and Ehrlich rolled up 23 percent of the vote.

Frostburg State University political science professor John Bambacus said he believed that Steele suffered from something of an identity crisis and that Cardin appeared solid and steady, if not as exciting. The former chairman of the state GOP, Steele had to abandon his partisan past to attract independents and Democrats. "I don't think he could figure out who he was, and I think that probably hurt him as well," Bambacus said.

Steele signaled yesterday that his search for his place in the world will continue. "The future is bright for me," he said. "To me, the glass is always half full. I just want to figure out how to fill it all the way to the top."

Staff writers Robert Barnes and John Wagner, polling director Jon Cohen and database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.

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