Loss of moderates points to more-polarized Md. Senate

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Maryland's often hushed, maroon Senate chamber could soon be a far more polarized and potentially rancorous place, especially on fiscal policy, with staunch liberal and conservative lawmakers replacing moderate ones.

After several primary losses by incumbents, at least one in six faces in the Senate will be new when the General Assembly reconvenes in January to reconsider measures that would require large corporations to pay more taxes and would raise levies on alcoholic beverages.

Some Democrats have suggested these measures -- which failed in the legislature this year -- as potential ways to close an estimated $1.5 billion budget gap.

"This election is definitely going to send a message throughout the Maryland political landscape that voters are really looking for progressive solutions as we go through these tough times," said Rion Dennis, acting director of Progressive Maryland, a nonprofit that advocates for working-class families. "There are a new breed of lawmakers coming who will change the tenor of that chamber."

Led by a wave of mostly young, liberal Democrats in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, at least five senators were ousted Tuesday by members of the House of Delegates.

Two races in Montgomery County remained too close to call.

There was also turnover on the Republican side of the aisle. Sen. Donald F. Munson, a moderate from Washington County, was defeated by Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip, who is known for scathing addresses on the House floor when he perceives Republican interests being bowled over by the chamber's strong Democratic majority.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers said one undecided race that hung in the balance could determine how partisan Maryland's Senate becomes.

In the 14th District, in Montgomery, Sen. Rona E. Kramer, who opposed the state's "millionaire's tax" was trailing Del. Karen S. Montgomery by 101 votes in the Democratic primary. With nearly three times as many uncounted Democratic absentee ballots remaining in the district, it was likely the race wouldn't be decided for a week -- or longer if it goes to a recount.

Montgomery is a key backer of so-called combined reporting, a tax policy that affects large corporations and that some other states have adopted.

Democrats, led by longtime President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., are expected to maintain a healthy majority in the Senate. But Republicans hope to pick up five seats, enough to force a filibuster.

"If Kramer goes, she was a moderate, and there's no question that would be a big difference," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (Somerset), a retiring Eastern Shore Republican. He said the addition of Shank might only balance out the loss of Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County), who gave up his seat to challenge Rep. Frank M. Kratovil (D) in the 1st Congressional District.

"Harris was as polarized as anyone can be," Stoltzfus said.

Democratic and Republican strategists and lawmakers in Annapolis said that more than any one-for-one swap, Munson's loss to Shank, who ran to the incumbent's right, and the defeat of a longtime Baltimore democrat who was outflanked to the left could have a more pervasive, partisan effect.

Most Maryland legislative districts are heavily Democratic or Republican and rarely competitive in general elections. But observers said that if sitting lawmakers perceive that they could be vulnerable to less moderate elements within their own parties, they might be less willing to compromise.

In other Democratic primaries, Sen. Nathaniel Exum was upset by Del. Joanne C. Benson, and Sen. David C. Harrington lost the nomination to Del. Victor R. Ramirez, both contests in Prince George's. In Montgomery, Sen. Michael G. Lenett lost to Del. Roger P. Manno.

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