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  More Md. Politicians Making the Party Switch

Thousands of Maryland voters have changed their political party affiliation in the last five years. Most voters are declining to state a party affiliation, effectively declaring themselves independents. June 22 is the last day for voters to change party affiliation before the Sept. 15 primary.
Ralph Neas
Ralph Neas (James A. Parcell/TWP)

Diane R. Evans
Diane R. Evans (file photo)

Randy McRae
Randy McRae (Tom Allen/TWP)

Number of registered voters in selected counties who left these political parties to join another party or decline affiliation altogether, 1993-97:

County Democrats Republicans Other*
Anne Arundel 4,879 2,811 2,835
Calvert 539 273 407
Charles 953 510 929
Howard 1,810 702 1,838
Montgomery 4,894 3,099 5,360
Prince George's 3,137 2,013 4,014
St. Mary's 4,879 2,811 2,835

* Other includes those individuals who declined to affiliate with an established party and those who designated affiliation with a party that is not established under Maryland law.

Source: Maryland State Administrative Board of Election Laws.

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 1998; Page B01

The Republican running for Prince George's county executive has done it. So has the Democratic challenger in a Montgomery County congressional race. The Republican Howard county executive was among the first of a recent wave, and the Democratic candidate for Anne Arundel county executive is among the latest.

They are the politicians who have switched their political party, a relatively new, growing breed of Maryland candidate that political scientists say is the product of the same shifting demographic and ideological currents that have reshaped southern politics over the last two decades. It is hard to find a local ballot in Maryland this election year where at least one candidate did not formerly belong to another party.

The motivations are part tactical, part ideological and follow more than a decade of steady party switching among Maryland voters that has picked up pace since the 1994 elections. More than 60,000 voters, or 2.4 percent of the electorate, have changed party affiliation since Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey lost by fewer than 6,000 votes in the 1994 governor's race to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). The trend has been accelerating over this decade; 47,554 voters switched allegiances from 1992 to 1994.

The trend reflects the declining ability of political parties to maintain party loyalty through the promise of government jobs, contracts and other incentives. What it means for candidates is an electorate more likely to cross party lines. So-called wedge issues such as development and social policy take on increasing importance with their ability to pry voters from their parties, analysts say.

"You play down party appeal and stress particular values," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Atlanta's Emory University who has written extensively on the subject. "People are much less attached to parties." Many voters leaving parties are declining to join an established party, choosing instead to register as independents. Others are jumping on a Republican bandwagon, helping pump up GOP voting rolls by 28 percent this decade.

Richard L. Berglund, 53, said he joined the GOP in 1995 after three decades as a Democrat because he views Democratic welfare and other entitlement programs as failures. "They pass law after law without ever solving the problem," said the Silver Spring resident, adding that he believes party leaders are out of touch with common concerns. "I've never voted a straight ticket, although this time I probably will" support all Republicans.

Political analysts say there are signs that Maryland may be next in line for a political realignment similar in some ways to the one that has transformed the South from the home of conservative Democrats to a Republican bastion.

The transition began with a rise in the number of voters leaving established parties and declaring themselves independents. Eventually, the Republican rolls grew after the successful presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s, and the Republican takeover of Congress that followed.

"Today it's very hard to find young Democrats in the South. If they are in their twenties, thirties or forties, they are either Republicans or independents," Black said.

In Maryland, the pattern appears to be repeating. The number of independent voters has increased 80 percent to more than 300,000 since 1990. As in the South, Maryland candidates have begun changing parties after several years of steady voter switching. Most state candidates who have changed parties have turned to the GOP.

But all is not gloom and doom for Maryland Democrats. Their party still outnumbers Republicans 2 to 1 in registered voters, and Democrats in Maryland have been more liberal than those in the South. Many analysts say they believe the GOP ultimately may not make the gains in Maryland the party achieved in the South because of the state's substantial, consistently Democratic African American electorate, its more active labor bloc, and its large number of government workers unlikely to support the GOP's smaller-government message.

The list of prominent party switchers this year encompasses members of both parties and includes U.S. Senate, state legislature, and county council candidates. Randy McRae, a 20-year Democrat, joined the Republicans this year to challenge Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). Ralph Neas, once a moderate Republican, is now a Democrat taking on U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R). In 1990, Charles I. Ecker, today, a gubernatorial candidate, became the first Republican to win a Howard county executive's race, only a year after leaving a Democratic Party to which he had belonged for more than 40 years. And Anne Arundel County Council member Diane R. Evans, who headed the panel as a Republican, is taking on the GOP incumbent as a Democrat.

Some candidates switch because they perceive a change in party direction. Neas, who helped doom conservative appeals court Judge Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination, said today's GOP has "no room for progressives."

"The Republican Party has been taken over by the radical right," said Neas, citing campaign finance, education and health care as areas in which he differs with the GOP.

Some, like Evans, McRae and Ecker, switched in part because they had little chance to win office otherwise. Paul S. Herrnson, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, said most switchers "don't wake up one morning and see the light. They wake up and say, 'I may be challenged in a primary and lose.' "

Others have left because they were snubbed by party leaders after years of service.

"Doors were being closed to me, and this was being done by Anne Arundel County Republicans and the state party chairman," said Evans, who set out to challenge incumbent John G. Gary in the Republican primary before changing parties.

Ecker called his party switch in 1989 a "coming out of the closet," prompted by Howard Republicans recruiting him to take on Democratic incumbent Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard). "There used to be a stigma attached to being a Republican. My philosophy didn't change. My party affiliation no longer fit my values."

In 1995, almost three times more Maryland Democrats than Republicans left their parties after Sauerbrey's narrow loss the previous year. Eve Lallas, a former Baltimore County schoolteacher whose parents were Greek immigrants and New Deal Democrats, was one who made "the big switch," prompted by a sense that Democratic entitlement programs were stifling the immigrant spirit that made her parents a success.

"The party has swung toward big government," Lallas said. "When I started seeing that, I thought it's way past due for me to make the switch."

Delroy L. Cornick, a Columbia retiree and part-time professor of business at the University of Maryland at College Park, voted for Sauerbrey last time as a Democrat and expects to support her this year as a registered Republican. "Democratic programs didn't solve problems but accommodated people through problems," Cornick said, adding that he is wary of GOP rhetoric on welfare and affirmative action, which as an African American he finds troubling. Still, he said, he is willing to cast his vote to shake things up.

"If you want something to change, you have to change something," Cornick said. "You can't wish for it unless you are willing to do something about it."

Maryland Elections Report

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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