In reliably blue Maryland, the Republican challenge is a steep one

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 7:39 PM

Holly Ellison Henderson extended her hand with a bright smile, passed out fliers and made quick-hit chitchat with passersby - those cute twins traipsing beside their mom, a coach's soccer jacket and the upcoming election - all in the well-worn trade of retail campaigning.

But Saturday morning, outside a Giant grocery in Fort Washington, it's mostly an uphill slog to get people's attention, particularly for a young, female, African American Republican in one of the bluest jurisdictions of reliably blue Maryland.

Then she meets Wayne Edmondson, 53, an aerospace corporation employee who lives in Fort Washington. Edmondson stops. He listens to her pitch. He engages in a discussion about the county's schools, local politics.

After Henderson moves on, Edmondson reports that she made a good impression on him, and he might vote for her, because he thinks of himself as an independent.

Yet right down to his white sneakers, Edmondson is dressed in a jean jacket, jeans and button-down jean shirt. All blue.

Despite a volatile electorate that has targeted incumbents nationwide, particularly Democrats, Maryland seems likely to remain as solidly Democratic as ever this year, thanks to a large number of federal government employees, a sizable African American population and unions. Only one of its congressional seats seems up for grabs: the close race between Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D) and Republican challenger Andy Harris in Maryland's 1st District.

While Republicans hold a bigger chunk of Maryland's turf geographically, owing to the western reaches of the state and the Eastern Shore, the Washington-Baltimore suburbs have most of the people. And they have been reliably Democratic for years. An August 2009 Gallup poll that surveyed people's political leanings found that Maryland ranked third among people who identify themselves as Democrats. The state was behind Massachusetts and Hawaii and ahead of New York and California, a reality that makes life for most Democrats fairly safe.

"I was surprised to see a political ad by Barbara Mikulski, because she doesn't seem to have a race," said Carin Robinson, an assistant professor at Hood College who has studied evangelicals and the political right. She said Brian Murphy's primary run against Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) seems to have represented the high-water mark of the tea party's influence in Maryland, and it was never really a serious threat. Even places that have been conservative, such as Frederick County, have seen Democratic Party registrations increasing. "There really isn't a Christian right here," Robinson said.

Nowhere are the numbers more daunting than in Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore. Here is the math: Prince George's has 401,125 registered Democrats, or 78 percent of all registered voters in the county. Only Baltimore City runs slightly bluer in a state where Democrats hold more than a 2 to 1 edge over Republicans. In Prince George's, Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1.

"What makes it blue is the black Democrats," said Delphine Hall-Anderson, 59, who is black and lives in Fort Washington.

Adam Sheingate, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said blacks' allegiance stems partly from the civil rights era, when those opposed to ending segregation flipped from Democrat to Republican, particularly in the South. Even though a large segment of the black community is opposed to gay marriage and abortion, they tend to vote based on socioeconomic reasons articulated better by Democrats.

"I think for the most part, when black voters look at both parties, they don't see the Republican Party as being welcoming to them," Sheingate said.

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