No 'safe riding' for most seats in fall elections


Most political candidates prefer what, in Britain, is called "safe riding" -- no opposition whatsoever. But noncandidates tend to like competition, even within their own parties, saying primaries create interest in the races and party favorites.

Voters will have some of both this September, with primary fights in 13 of 19 local races from county executive to state Senate to Orphans' Court judge. Democrats will have primary fights in 12 of those races, Republicans in nine.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, will not face opposition until the Nov. 8 general election. "Primaries are good for other people, not for me," he said.

One of the things making primaries such a risky business is the low voter turnout. In 1990, for example, only 25 percent of the electorate -- 15,001 Democrats and 7,675 Republicans -- cast ballots in the primary, compared with 56 percent -- 28,581 Democrats and 18,361 Republicans -- in the general election.

The voters who participate in a primary usually are party activists or people who share a candidate's particular interest. Having the party imprimatur in a primary fight is crucial.

In 1990, for example, Mr. Ecker was backed by party regulars in his primary race against Gil South, who had been the party's nominee four years earlier. Mr. Ecker won easily, with 65 percent of the vote.

Two County Council primaries followed the same pattern that year. Incumbent Democrat Shane Pendergrass beat her primary challenger with 57 percent of the vote, and incumbent Republican Charles C. Feaga fended off his with 54 percent.

Mr. Ecker later eked out a victory over incumbent Democrat M. Elizabeth Bobo, and Ms. Pendergrass squeaked by her opponent to become one of the few local Democrats to survive a Republican massacre in the general election. Political pundits pointed to their primary victories as important steppingstones.

Based on that logic, Columbia Democrat Sue-Ellen Hantman, the choice of Democratic Party regulars in this year's county executive race, might expect to have little difficulty beating Highland resident Susan Gray, a political outsider, in the Sept. 13 primary. She might also expect a close and winnable race against Mr. Ecker in the general election.

That logic may not prevail, however, because Ms. Gray, a slow-growth activist, has the other ingredient that can provide a victory in a primary: an issue of special interest to many voters.

It may not interest enough voters to make a difference, however, says Republican Michael Deets, the GOP's 1990 nominee for the west Columbia seat on the County Council.

"The kind of voting in the Democratic primary is likely to be along the lines of the liberal party activist and not the slow-growth ideas of the Susan Gray stripe," Mr. Deets said.

Although Ms. Gray's ideas are espoused by many of her neighbors in rural Howard County, they may not help her in the primary because many of those residents are Republicans, Mr. Deets said. The deadline for changing party affiliation before the primary was June 20.

Carole Fisher, who succeeded Ms. Hantman as chairwoman of the local Democratic Central Committee, thinks primaries only help unknown candidates. She does not relish the prospect of Ms. Hantman and Ms. Gray going head to head this September.

"I don't know that much about [Ms. Gray] except that she focuses primarily on zoning issues," Ms. Fisher said. "If you're completely unknown, a primary is good for you. Otherwise you have to spend a lot of money you could have used for the general election. It's an unattractive diversion."

For the winners, however, primary races "give your organization a trial run and get people to commit to you a little bit sooner," Mr. Deets said. And the big payoff comes when a challenger upsets an incumbent.

"Anyone who knocks off an incumbent in the primary suddenly looks invincible in the general election," he said.

That possibility exists in four Democratic and three Republican races this September. Two of the biggest challenges will occur in east Columbia.

In one race, former planning board Chairwoman Kathryn Mann is going toe-to-toe with three-time incumbent C. Vernon Gray in the Democratic primary for the 2nd district County Council seat. In the other, Del. Virginia M. Thomas has decided to challenge incumbent Thomas M. Yeager for the District 13 Senate seat, rather than seek a fourth term in the House of Delegates.

Ms. Fisher may not like primary races, but she hopes they will generate enough interest this year to rival the general election in voter turnout.

"People complain and complain about the quality of candidates [in general elections], yet they don't vote in the primary where it has so much effect," she said.

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