Tuesday's primary election results set the stage for three pivotal races in Maryland that Republicans badly need to win to make substantial mid-term gains in Congress this year.
Two of these closely contested seats are held by incumbents, one a Democrat (Steny Hoyer) and one a Republican (Roscoe Bartlett). The other is an open seat (Helen Bentley decided on a losing run for governor). They shape up as hard-fought campaigns with some sharp political differences.
Mr. Bartlett captured nearly 90 percent of the GOP primary vote. His brand of extreme conservatism and his idiosyncratic comments make him popular in Western Maryland. He also benefits from Ellen Sauerbrey's being at the top of the GOP ticket -- the gubernatorial nominee won a big vote in the 6th Congressional District on Tuesday.
But the Democrats nominated their own idiosyncratic conservative who is just as feisty as the incumbent -- former Del. Paul Muldowney of Hagerstown. He emerged from a crowded field to win handily. Mr. Muldowney doesn't mince words and he doesn't have many kind things to say about Mr. Bartlett's performance. The campaign fireworks could light up the sky from Deep Creek Lake all the way to Liberty Dam.
Mr. Hoyer, meanwhile, has a formidable foe in Donald Devine, a former Reagan personnel chief who would benefit from a big conservative vote in November. The Fifth Congressional District (Southern Maryland and Prince George's County) likes its politics right of center. That's a problem for Mr. Hoyer. Two years ago, he seemed to win over his new constituents. But in a conservative year, that might not be so easy.
The biggest face-off comes in the 2nd Congressional District, where the mirror-image nominees are Democrat Gerry Brewster and Republican Robert Ehrlich. They were classmates at Gilman and Princeton; both are lawyers; both serve on the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis. There the similarities end. Mr. Brewster is a chameleon on political issues; Mr. Ehrlich is a conservative.
In the primary, Mr. Brewster won by only 1,800 votes; Mr. Ehrlich coasted to victory. The Republican nominee benefits from the conservative nature of the district (Harford County, east-central Baltimore County and Northern Anne Arundel County) and from Mrs. Sauerbrey's popularity in her home county. But the congressional seat is clearly up for grabs. Much is at stake, not just for the candidates but for congressional leaders, too.