Handful of senators face stiff challenges

Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. defeated Brian Murphy, a Republican primary challenger backed by Sarah Palin, clearing the way for a rematch in November against the Democrat who defeated him four years ago.
By Aaron C. Davis
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nominations for all 188 seats in Maryland's General Assembly were up for grabs Tuesday, but as returns trickled in before midnight, attention was focused on eight contests poised to bring some new blood into the state Senate.

Six Democrats and two Republicans were attempting to fend off stiff challenges from current or former delegates looking to move up in an Annapolis pecking order long defined by lawmakers who mostly waited their turn rather than challenging more senior members of their own party.

The spat of mostly Democratic infighting threatened to oust more incumbents than the November general election, in which Senate Republicans have set a lofty target of picking up five seats in a heavily Democratic legislature that reflects the party's 2-to-1 advantage among registered voters.

On Tuesday, Montgomery County was at the epicenter of Maryland's legislative turmoil on the Democratic side. Four senators -- Nancy J. King, Jennie M. Forehand, Rona E. Kramer and Michael G. Lenett -- were battlingmostly younger Democratic lawmakers.

With about half of the ballots counted, Lenett was losing to his challenger, while Forehand and Kramer were locked in races that were too close to call. King was holding a thin lead.

The contest between King and her challenger, Del. Saqib Ali, a 35-year-old software engineer and first-term state lawmaker, drew the most attention and had arguably become the most negative.

Ali sought to run to King's left, saying that she was too cozy with alcohol and gambling interests and that her positions on same-sex marriage and other social issues did not represent the views of her District 39 constituents.

King sought to maintain the mantle of a progressive and also claimed that Ali had slept through votes. She sent out campaign mailings showing him sacked out on a couch in a lawmakers' lounge in the State House. Another flier brought questions of racial undertones in the race when Ali's complexion appeared darker in a King campaign mailer than in the original picture.

In District 19, Del. Roger Manno opened up a significant lead over Lenett in early returns. Manno charged that Lenett had not worked well with other lawmakers to further county and district goals. The race featured two lawyers, significant spending by both sides and more than one clash over the candidates' views on the effects of the controversial Intercounty Connector.

In District 14, Del. Karen S. Montgomery sought to oust Kramer, saying she would work harder than the incumbent on issues including tax overhaul. Montgomery touted her support of "combined reporting," a tax-collection method that makes it more difficult for large corporations to avoid paying in-state taxes. The issue is expected to come up again when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Kramer emphasized her economic development credentials and her opposition to the "millionaires" tax, which temporarily raised rates on the state's highest earners.

That race was also not without hard hits. Kramer repeatedly drew attention to Montgomery's decision to skip a 2007 special session in which the General Assembly voted on several tax increases. Montgomery was in China on a previously planned family vacation.

In District 17, Cheryl C. Kagan, a former state delegate who was attempting a comeback, argued that Forehand had been in office too long and become ineffective. Forehand has been in the House or Senate for nearly 32 years.

Like Montgomery's other three Senate incumbents facing challengers, Forehand was backed by much of the Democratic establishment in Annapolis and had money to spend, leading to an avalanche of campaign fliers in many mailboxes across the county.

In Prince George's County, two Democratic senators faced similarly aggressive challenges.

Longtime Sen. Nathaniel Exum was taken on by Del. Joanne C. Benson, and Sen. David C. Harrington tried to fight off Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a two-term state lawmaker with deep grass-roots support. Harrington was appointed to the Senate in 2008.

On the Republican side, House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank took on Sen. Donald F. Munson to represent Washington County and a swath of Western Maryland.

The bid was a gamble for Shank, who had risen to prominence in the House.

In Anne Arundel County, Del. James J. King was one of two candidates seeking to unseat Sen. Edward R. Reilly, a mid-term appointee to replace Sen. Janet Greenip, who retired.

Infighting wasn't the only theme of Tuesday's primary. There were also seats vacated by at least 10 lawmakers who retired, took other jobs or decided to seek office closer to home or in Washington.

District 15 Del. Craig Rice, for example, gave up a chance to run for a second term to seek the sole Montgomery County Council seat with no incumbent. And Sen. Andrew P. Harris gave up his seat to seek the nomination to take on Rep. Frank Kratovil in the 1st Congressional District.

Longtime Del. Murray D. Levy of La Plata, Del. Henry B. Heller of Leisure World and Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus of Westover are retiring.

With early voting numbers suggesting a light turnout and heavily partisan districts leaving little chance that more than one or two of the challenged or vacant seats would shift parties, it was likely that much of the composition of Maryland General Assembly would effectively be decided Tuesday with only a fraction of the electorate casting ballots.

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