Tuesday shapes up as a watershed election for Maryland. Regardless of who wins the race for governor, voting patterns are in the process of shifting so dramatically that this state may never be the same.
Parris Glendening, the Democratic candidate, is relying on a tripod strategy -- massive victories in three of the state's most populous jurisdictions that are so huge they offset heavy losses in Maryland's other 21 counties.
If he succeeds, it will establish a new formula for statewide elections and create a Prince George's-Montgomery-Baltimore city nexus in Annapolis.
But if Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican nominee, wins, the state's rural and exurban counties will command new power. A union of the non-Washington suburbs and the rural counties will come to the fore in Annapolis.
Either way, the next governor will owe election to a different bloc of voters. And, not surprisingly, the next governor will be under enormous pressure to cater to the winning constituencies.
For Mr. Glendening, that means targeting his programs toward the needs of three urban-leaning jurisdictions, two of them with majority-black populations. For Ms. Sauerbrey, it means tailoring programs so that they are pleasing to the conservative Baltimore suburbs and rural Maryland, where voters are overwhelmingly white.
Never before have we seen such a division: the state's three most liberal jurisdictions versus everyone else. The Glendening forces, though, are trying to hold back the Republican tide that is sweeping through much of the nation. If momentum is a factor in this race, give the edge to Ms. Sauerbrey.
And yet it is hard to draw solid conclusions from what's happening. Sure, voters are fed up with the direction of American politics. They are fed up with the inability of Democrats to run the country effectively and efficiently. They are fed up with paying taxes. And an increasing number of voters believe they can get something for nothing -- cut taxes and increase conveniences provided by government.
Still, with all this discontent, Maryland voters seem determined to re-elect to the U.S. Senate one of the most liberal politicians in Washington. And a Democrat to boot. Voters are sending mixed ZTC signals.
If Ms. Sauerbrey is elected governor it will be because voters are desperate for change. That is precisely what she represents: A radical re-thinking of how government does its job in the State House.
And if the Republican candidate wins, it will be because Democrat Glendening relied too heavily on negative attack ads and never simplified his message in a way that identified him with change.
Instead, he has become the personification of the Democratic hegemony that has ruled Maryland for the past 25 years. Like it or not, he's being punished for the sins of big-spending William Donald Schaefer. Because Mr. Glendening has not established his own persona with voters, he gets labeled as a typical "tax and spend" Democrat.
Even if Mr. Glendening hangs on to win, things will be different in Annapolis. The new gubernatorial order will be Washington-oriented for the first time in this century. It also will be urban-oriented. But it will have little in the way of resources. It will be forced out of necessity to trim government services and revamp bureaucracies to save money. That's one message voters are delivering loud and clear.
For decades, Maryland has been among the most liberal states in the nation. But beneath the surface, the suburbanization of Maryland was slowly transforming the political landscape. The state is a lot more conservative today than it was 20 years ago.
The boom in the suburbs has meant a growing number of married couples with kids and a house who no longer want to save the world: they just want to make the mortgage payments and get some money back at tax time. Ellen Sauerbrey appeals to their basic instincts of suburban survival. And she is telling them it can be done without sacrifice.
These people have been increasingly voting for Republican candidates for local offices. It's no accident, for instance, that Arundel, Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties all could have Republican majorities in their councils after Tuesday and that Carroll now is a majority-Republican community.
Thus, it isn't surprising Ellen Sauerbrey has done so well this year. That conservative undercurrent in the Baltimore suburbs is finally bubbling to the surface in a statewide election. Ms. Sauerbrey may be far to the right of most suburbanites on many of her social views, but on the issues that really matter to voters in the 'burbs, she's their kind of candidate. She has given Mr. Glendening the race of his life. Win or lose, she has shaken the old established order to its core.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.