"When I ran against [Ulman], I had the endorsements of all the papers," he said. "I raised just about the same amount of money as [Ulman], but at the end of the day, national politics played a big role in the election."

Merdon doesn't see the same potential for backlash against the Democrats in 2014, although he said developments in Syria could hurt Democrats down the road, just as Republican opposition to the president's budget could hurt them.

"Being so close to Washington, D.C., I think Howard County gets its fair, or unfair, share [of political trickle-down]," Merdon said.

Local pollster Jason Booms, a Democrat and founder of Booms Research & Consulting, agreed.

"If the Obama administration's popularity is where it is now, it should help make for a more challenging race for the Democratic nominee for county executive," he said.

The environment in 2006, he added, was beneficial to Watson's race in District 1, which is known for being closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, and historically had elected Republican County Council members before Watson's victory.

When Watson won District 1 for the first time, defeating Republican candidate Tony Salazar, the margin was 988 votes. Watson took 52.3 percent of the votes and Salazar had 47.7 percent. She saw about the same results in 2010 in her win against former Del. and state Transportation Secretary Bob Flanagan, a Republican who is now seeking to return to the House of Delegates by running in District 9B.

Kittleman has had more comfortable margins in the more conservative 9th District. In his first state Senate election, in 2006, he defeated Democratic contender Rich Corkran by nearly 8,000 votes, winning 60.5 percent of the vote compared with Corkran's 39.5 percent.

His 2010 results were even better, with a 10,606-vote advantage over Democratic opponent Jim Adams.

Because most people tend to vote along party lines, according to political insiders, Watson would have the advantage of numbers in a countywide race.

But Booms said it's not quite that simple.

"I think the biggest problem Watson will have in 2014 will be getting the base to turn out," he said. "She has to motivate the base as well as appeal to independent voters."

Candidate personalities also have traditionally played a role in elections, sometimes overshadowing the issues.

Kittleman scores high in affability, said Booms, who said he had "an almost Chris Christie-like appeal," a reference to the New Jersey Republican governor's crossover likability among Democrats as well as Republicans.

"Watson can come across as more reserved, which can be misinterpreted by some as aloofness," he added.

But both candidates have proven their success at the polls and in their communities.

Howard Johnson, who as former president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association worked with both Watson and Kittleman, said each candidate had been helpful to the Elkridge community, particularly in dealing with CSX issues.

"Both of them have been great in their roles," said Johnson.

He hopes the election will stay focused on the issues.

"Being a legislator and being an executive are very different things," Johnson said. "The question is, what are they going to do in the future to accommodate the needs of people across the county?"

Booms summed up the general consensus: "It's going to be an exciting race."