In the unpredictable world of Maryland politics, Baltimore County plays a pivotal role.
If the county swings toward Republican candidates, it usually means Maryland is heading in that direction, too.
If county voters favor Democrats, the state is almost certain to follow.
That's why so much attention next year will be focused on Baltimore County's elections. It could give a good indication of results in Maryland: Is it trending to the right toward Republicans or remaining steadfast in support of Democrats?
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is counting on the county leaning in his favor by a hefty margin. It's a bellwether county for him, where he won by 20 percentage points in 2014.
This time, though, Hogan faces an unexpected obstacle — President Trump, whose unpopularity is so immense in much of the county that it may hurt any Republican running in 2018.
Hogan has tried to distance himself from the Republican president. Polls indicate that tactic is working, but this could change if Trump's antics persist.
The Republican governor also wants to pick up two state Senate seats in the county as part of his effort to prevent Democrats from overriding his vetoes.
That would give Hogan, if re-elected, full control of the next redistricting of the General Assembly following the 2020 census.
In northern Baltimore County and parts of Towson, state Sen. Jim Brochin may run for county executive. If he does, that district is likely to elect a Republican replacement. Democrat Brochin only got 51.6 percent of the vote the last time he ran.
Two incumbent Republican delegates could have the best shot. Either Del. Susan Aumann or Del. Chris West would be heavily favored in a Senate race.
A more difficult challenge for the GOP could occur in eastern Baltimore County, represented by longtime Democratic state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier. She remains popular, gaining 61 percent of the vote in 2014.
But this time her opponent is likely to be Republican Del. Christian Miele, a first-term legislator party officials feel is a rising star.
It will be an interesting contest — a high-energy, youthful champion of campaigning through social media versus a savvy, traditional campaigner known for decades in the Parkville, Perry Hall and White Marsh communities.
Miele's chances could be hurt by the Trump factor. If the 2018 election becomes a referendum on the president's bad behavior, Miele and other local GOP candidates might suffer.
This month, Miele held a fund-raiser in which Hogan made his first endorsement for next year's election.
But Miele faces a fundraising deficit against Klausmeier, which could grow as Senate President Mike Miller funnels hefty amounts of campaign dollars to endangered Democratic senators.
In the northwest part of the county, Reisterstown Councilwoman Vicki Almond is giving every indication of running for county executive, which could prompt a stampede of candidates eager to succeed her in a heavily Democratic district.
Meanwhile, far-left liberals are encouraging Del. Shelly Hettleman to challenge state Sen. Bobby Zirkin in the Democratic primary. Given Zirkin's near-invincibility in past elections, that might prove a steep slog.
If she takes on the challenge, though, it would mean a wide-open race for her seat in the House of Delegates.
Then there's this question. Will any candidate target Democratic Del. Dan Morhaim in 2018?
Morhaim, who represents the Owings Mills area, was reprimanded by the House of Delegates earlier this year for an apparent conflict of interest involving the granting of medical marijuana licenses. How much this harmed the longtime physician-delegate is unknown.
It's another fascinating twist to keep an eye on as the 2018 election season gets underway at this early date.
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Barry Rascovar's blog is politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.