Stung by Janice Piccinini's upset victory over a three-term incumbent in the Democratic Senate primary in Baltimore County's 10th District, at least two Republican delegates are considering switching to the Senate race to run against her in November.
Piccinini, former president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, swamped Sen. Francis X. Kelly on Tuesday night in a race that hinged on her strong support of abortion rights. Kelly was a leader of the Senate filibuster that blocked abortion-rights legislation in the last General Assembly session.
Running unopposed, Richard M. Cornwell won the Republican nomination Tuesday, but he apparently is willing to bow out of the race to allow Republican delegates Ellen R. Sauerbrey or Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to run against Piccinini in November.
"I don't think it will be well-received if [Sauerbrey] does run," Piccinini said. "I think it would be very deceptive.
"We'll slay the dragon twice if we have to," she said. "Ellen is Frank Kelly all over again."
Cornwell, a farmer from White Hall, was not available for comment. He ran in the primary solely "to preserve the party's options" in the event that Piccinini won, Ehrlich said.
Cornwell would have to withdraw from the race by Sept. 21, according to the state elections board. If he does, the district's Republican State Central Committee would nominate a successor to run in November.
"I think the party has to evaluate the race and the chances of doing anything at this very, very late stage of the game," Sauerbrey said. "I'm certainly very unhappy with the Democrats' selection."
Sauerbrey, who is the ranking Republican in the House of Delegates, and Ehrlich would automatically give up their delegate seats if they switched races.
Kelly, a Democrat, has for years maintained an unusual alliance with the three Republican delegates in the district, with both sides agreeing not to run candidates against each other.
Sauerbrey said Piccinini is "out of step with the district ... talking about taxes and union activism."
Sauerbrey said a candidate would have to stay away from the abortion issue to win against Piccinini. Sauerbrey is generally anti-abortion, although her views are slightly more moderate than Kelly's.
Ehrlich said he was flooded with calls yesterday urging him to run. He said the party hoped to conduct a poll in the next few days to gauge its chances against Piccinini.
The final tally in Tuesday's vote was 61-39 percent for Piccinini, a strong margin over a respected and well-financed incumbent. The margin shocked many political observers and made it clear that the abortion issue can make and break candidates in this state.
"We called people, we simply said, 'If you care about this issue, go vote,'" said Bebe Verdery, a lobbyist with Planned Parenthood who joined Piccinini's victory celebration in Cockeysville. "I think the tide has turned and people are willing to come out and vote for the issue."
The turnout in the 10th District was exceptionally high compared with the average 30 percent turnout around the state. The district had a Democratic turnout of better than 50 percent, with one precinct reaching more than 60 percent.
"The enemy in this election was not Janice Piccinini. The enemy in this campaign was the abortion issue," Kelly told about 200 supporters in a brief concession speech.
Kelly several times invoked God's name and urged his supporters to continue "the battle for the preborn," prompting more than a few "Amen, amen" responses from the crowd.
"They've expressed themselves tonight, I believe, on one issue," Kelly said. "I don't like the results, but I'll get on my hands and knees every night and pray that they change their minds."
Statewide, abortion-rights candidates prevailed in four of the five legislative races where the opponents had sharply differing opinions on abortion.
Earlier this year, a filibuster, led in part by Kelly, tied up the Senate for eight days. Yesterday's results, if upheld as expected in the November general election, appeared to give the abortion-rights side enough votes to kill any future filibusters on the issue in the Senate.
"When you defeat Frank Kelly, one of the leaders of the filibuster, you're delivering a powerful message," said Steven Rivelis, head of Choice PAC, a group that gave financial help to abortion-rights candidates. "I expected some sort of gray area. This is a clear message."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who was unable to break the filibuster, said the ultimate battle over abortion in Maryland will not be in the State House but back in the polling booths.
"No matter what happens, the issue will be petitioned to referendum," said Miller, D-Prince George's. "The people can decide."
During the filibuster, both camps pleaded with Gov. William Donald Schaefer to intercede, possibly by officially announcing his abortion stance. The governor has steadfastly dodged direct questions about his position on abortion, but yesterday he told reporters he will issue an abortion position paper sometime next week.
Schaefer's position is expected to reflect a conservative view of abortion, but abortion-rights activists said they do not foresee the governor's disclosure affecting any of the general election races where the question is a campaign issue.
"I think the pro-choice voters in Maryland have spoken and don't want a compromise," said Karyn Strickler, head of the Maryland National Abortion Rights Action League.
"I think Schaefer can take a lesson from the voters instead of vice versa," she said.