Like June bugs dropping at the first hint of summer's heat, the swarms of primary candidates in Howard County are gone. With each party's picks made, county Democrats and Republicans can unite behind their candidates and campaigns can refocus with just one opponent or set of opponents in mind.

But the two candidates running for the county's highest office have been locked in and focused for nine months already, campaigning but laying comparatively low until the primaries had run their course. Now, it's their turn for the spotlight.

With current County Executive Ken Ulman term-limited and on the ticket this November as the Democrats' candidate for lieutenant governor,Howard County voters have the choice between two new candidates, though neither is fresh-faced on the local political scene.

State Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican from West Friendship who has served in Annapolis for nearly a decade and on the County Council for a term and a half before that, is up against two-term Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat from Ellicott City who spent four years on the Board of Education before being elected to her current seat.

Some observers say this could be the first competitive county executive race in years. Others believe it's Watson's to lose. Either way, the two candidates have got all summer to convince voters.

What has traditionally been a frenetic sprint from primary to general election will now be a long-distance race, as the six-week intermission between the two elections stretches to a little more than four months. Three of those will be during Maryland's muggy summer, when many people spend more time with beach reads than they do reading about politics.

Political strategists say this year's earlier primary, held June 24 instead of in September, will impact planning and strategy in the county executive race.

"For people who didn't have a primary, it's really the starting point," said Rachael Rice, president of Democratic fundraising and political strategy firm Rice Consulting. "This is when the campaign gets real for them, when the rubber hits the road."

"I think the message is, you can't take the summer off now," said Herb Sweren, president of bipartisan consulting and technology group CampaignON Technology.

Summer fundraising

Despite the earlier date and change in timeline, the fundamental tenets of running a campaign — fundraising and getting the word out to voters — won't change for Watson and Kittleman.

Both are starting the summer with substantial campaign coffers that they are unlikely to deplete over the next few months.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, filed June 13, Kittleman has $320,367.57 to spend in the months ahead, and Watson has $754,936.48 — an unprecedented figure in the race for Howard County executive.

Rice, who specializes in fundraising and whose firm has done design work in previous years for Ulman's county executive campaigns, said changes to national campaign finance laws could benefit a candidate like Watson.

In April, the Supreme Court struck down a rule limiting aggregate political donations from an individual or business during a campaign cycle. For Maryland, the ruling led to a State Board of Elections decision to drop the former aggregate limit of $10,000.

In a year when Howard's Democratic county executive has been raising funds for a gubernatorial campaign, those limits could have affected the Democratic contender for Howard County executive.

Now, "people who had maxed out on Ken" can still give to Watson, Rice said.

Ulman's top-of-the-ticket visibility could potentially give Watson a boost as well, Rice added.

"Possibly, there's some people who are getting more politically active because they see Ken with the opportunity of being lieutenant governor — and perhaps they're more inclined to give than they would have been," she said.

But Rice said Watson's more than 2-to-1 financial advantage didn't rule out victory for Kittleman. She pointed to former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor's recent primary loss in Virginia to David Brat, a Randolph-Macon College economics professor who had spent $122,000 to Cantor's $5 million.