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Montgomery executive race: Elrich claims victory as Blair seeks recount

Marc Elrich and David Blair are in the race for executive of Montgomery County. (Sarah Voisin/Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Marc Elrich did not receive a plurality of Democratic votes. He did not receive a majority of Democratic votes. The article has been corrected.

Incumbent Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich declared victory late Saturday in a tight rematch with Potomac businessman David Blair, after the Associated Press deemed the contest too close to call.

His announcement came after nearly three weeks of tallying ballots, with Elrich holding an unofficial lead of 42 votes. The State Board of Elections tabulated eight additional provisional ballots on Sunday. Four went to Elrich, and four went to Blair.

“I am honored to be the Democratic nominee for County Executive,” Elrich wrote on Twitter. “I want to thank the voters. I love this county and care about our residents so very deeply. This primary has been a long journey (and certainly exciting).”

Less than 12 hours later, Blair announced in a news release that he would seek a recount. “We have made a powerful statement that our community wants and deserves proactive and positive local leadership,” he said in the statement.

Under Maryland law, Blair has three days after elections officials certify the results to petition for a recount. The state will conduct the recount at no cost if the margin of difference between the two candidates with the most votes is 0.25 percentage points or less of the votes. Elrich was up by 0.03 percentage points when he declared victory.

The Associated Press on Saturday said it would not declare a winner until election officials certify the vote count and all potential election challenges have passed. The prolonged wait and tight margins echo the previous clash between the two and their competing visions for the county.

Elrich, an increasingly divisive figure in Montgomery politics whose approach to growth and development elicited sharp criticism this election cycle, edged Blair out by 77 votes in 2018 to secure his first term leading the most populous county in Maryland.

Counting votes in that race took nearly two weeks and also resulted in a recount, which changed two votes, Elrich noted in a tweet Saturday as people questioned whether the margin was decisive. While some congratulated him, others noted that even if the count holds, he was not embraced by a majority of Democratic voters.

Elrich said in an interview Sunday morning that he decided to claim victory because, even with 34 outstanding ballots, he would still be ahead. He acknowledged that nothing is official, but he appeared confident about the results.

“Recounts rarely change anything. The last time we had a recount, it changed two votes,” Elrich said. “I feel pretty good, but nothing is a hundred percent.”

This year, term-limited County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) and Gaithersburg resident Peter James also competed in the closely watched Democratic primary, which was marked by heavy spending and pointed criticism among candidates eager to cast themselves as effective alternatives to Elrich.

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Democratic Montgomery County voters also advanced six new faces, all women, in County Council contests. According to the unofficial results, Laurie-Anne Sayles was projected to win the nomination for the fourth at-large seat, joining incumbents Gabe Albornoz, Will Jawando and Evan Glass as the Democrats on the November ballot.

Dawn Luedtke was projected to win the Democratic nomination for District 7, joining newcomers Marilyn Balcombe, Kate Stewart, Kristin Mink and Natali Fani-González on the ballot in their respective districts. District 3 incumbent Sidney Katz and District 1 incumbent Andrew Friedson, who ran uncontested, also won.

Observers say the tight margin in the county executive race is a referendum on Elrich’s policies, particularly on affordable housing, development and land use, issues that animated the campaign. While his supporters favor his cautious approach on economic growth, many county residents said Montgomery needs stronger leadership to attract businesses and jobs.

Much of the Montgomery business community lined up behind Blair, while Elrich garnered endorsements from dozens of labor unions and worker groups like Pro-Choice Maryland and CASA in Action.

At least two super PACs popped up to influence the county executive race, one focused on affordable housing and driving votes away from Elrich, and another financially backed by real estate and development groups, which endorsed Blair.

Elrich was heavily outfunded by Blair, a millionaire who according to the most recent campaign finance reports loaned his campaign $4.8 million. Elrich had raised just over $1 million through the county’s public financing program, which allows candidates to receive matching funds for donations of $250 or less from county residents.

Montgomery officials finished canvassing ballots Saturday afternoon, concluding an unprecedented primary election cycle marked by mail voting, delayed results and a state law prohibiting election workers from processing mail ballots until two days after the election.

While most statewide races had wide enough margins to call weeks ago, local leaders waited patiently for results in Montgomery, the last county in Maryland to finish counting ballots in the July 19 primary.

The winner ultimately will face Reardon Sullivan, the former head of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, in the general election in November, though this blue county has not elected a Republican county executive since the 1970s.