Registered Democrats' Lead Grows In Charles

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Final voter registration figures leading up to Tuesday's primary show a near-even split between Democrats and Republicans in Calvert and St. Mary's counties, but a widening Democratic majority in Charles.

The 2008 election marks the first time Democrats make up a majority of Charles County voters, with 50.6 percent of those registered identifying themselves as Democrats. As the county has grown, largely due to an influx of black residents moving south from Prince George's County, the proportion of Democrats has increased 1.5 percentage points, while Republicans have waned slightly, to 32.1 percent. Those numbers mirror statistics nationwide, which show that black voters are more likely to vote Democratic.

Virginia L. Benedict, chairman of the Charles County Democratic Central Committee, said the war in Iraq and the economy have contributed to the increasing number of Democrats in the county.

"People want to go out and have their voices heard because there is so much at stake for them," Benedict said. "People are losing their homes. People are dying in Iraq. There have been so many problems created by the Bush administration."

In Calvert and St. Mary's, where the populations are also growing but are still significantly smaller than Charles, Republicans continue to chip away at the once-dominant Democratic Party. In Calvert, Republicans have a 21-voter edge, while St. Mary's Democrats have a 2.4-percentage-point advantage.

"The majority of [Republican growth], of course, is people who are new to the area," said Samuel "Tom" Haynie, chairman of the St. Mary's County Republican Central Committee. "Traditionally this was a Democrat stronghold, and, if the population had stayed static, that would have stayed the same."

The major party organizations in Southern Maryland have remained neutral on particular candidates in accordance with state regulations. Benedict has worked as county chairman for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign independent of her official capacity as the county Democratic chairman, although she emphasized that Clinton's rival for the nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), would also make a capable president.

"We have two extremely strong candidates who are going to make history no matter which one is elected," Benedict said.

In New Hampshire, Iowa and other states with early primaries, turnout has been significantly higher among Democrats than Republicans, a statistic generally attributed to the celebrity of the party's two leading candidates and the historic significance of nominating either the first female or first African American candidate. But local Republican leaders said their voters would flock to the polls in large numbers as well.

In Charles, Republican Chairman Charles Lollar said increased taxes at the state and local levels will lead to high turnout among Maryland's fiscal conservatives.

"There's a strong spirit within our party about getting our nation back where it needs to go," Lollar said.

Frank McCabe, Lollar's counterpart in Calvert County, said the lack of intensive campaigning in Maryland by presidential candidates will probably limit turnout somewhat, but he added that if no candidate has a commanding lead after this week, more voters will show up at the polls for next week's primaries.

"We didn't really have a seriously contested primary in 2004, so no matter what, turnout should be higher this year," McCabe said. "But we're not expecting tons of people."

Cindy Slattery, chair of the St. Mary's County Democratic Central Committee, said she is curious to see how Democrats' opinions have changed over the past few months. When Slattery conducted an informal survey at the St. Mary's County Fair last fall, 42 percent of visitors to the Democrats' table cast ballots for Clinton, compared with 23 percent for Obama and 19 percent for former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who dropped out of the race last week. Slattery said she expects the surge in Obama's popularity across the country to shift those numbers.

"It will be very interesting to see what has changed," Slattery said, noting that just a handful of the more than 30 people at a recent gathering of county Democrats said they were undecided. "Both candidates are attracting a lot of attention, so I think people will definitely come out to vote."

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