Signs point to anemic turnout in Md. primary Gubernatorial races, White House scandal may affect voter interest; CAMPAIGN 1998


With a festively decorated trolley, the return of funny hats and threats of dire consequences for those who stay at home, office seekers in Maryland are hoping they can produce a respectable turnout for Maryland's primary elections Tuesday.

The voters may not cooperate, however.

"They're not excited, that's for sure," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, "and this thing that's going on with the president doesn't help us at all."

The absence of closely contested gubernatorial primaries leaves McFadden and other Democrats worried that core groups will boycott not just the primary, but the Nov. 3 general election. The East Baltimore Democrat fears President Clinton's imperiled presidency will further dispirit the electorate.

The voting Tuesday will be a gauge of how disaffected voters are. Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, joins those who predict an anemic showing by voters. But he cautions that rapid change in the economic and political spheres could have an impact, positive or negative, on turnout.

"The economy is on an unbelievable roller coaster, and I think the Clinton-Lewinsky issue could make pollsters a doomed profession," Haller said. "It's very hard to try to predict public opinion changes on such a volatile issue."

Across Maryland, several hotly contested General Assembly races and some battles for local offices may produce brisk voting in parts of Baltimore and in Prince George's, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

But the lack of a riveting primary race for governor almost guarantees a low turnout, said Democratic Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore. "My ego learned a long time ago that a contested race for the House of Delegates or the state Senate is not what turns people out," he said.

Maryland's top elections official, Linda H. Lamone, predicted a 35 percent turnout -- down from 40 percent in 1994, but up slightly from 1990, when the figure was 33 percent.

As summer campaigning ends, Republicans are feeling more optimistic than Democrats.

"Over the course of the past couple of weeks," said Jim Dornan, press secretary for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, "I've seen our supporters re-energized." In other words, bad news for Clinton and the Democrats may be good news for the GOP.

Grateful for Schaefer

Democrats find themselves grateful for the zest and color of a proven winner on their ballot: William Donald Schaefer, former governor and Baltimore mayor, brought an infusion of excitement to an election badly in need of one. Schaefer is running for state comptroller, a post held for 40 years by the late Louis L. Goldstein.

He and Glendening have posed together wearing goofy hats and the two men have begun campaigning together. At a rally last Wednesday in Towson, Schaefer implored a small audience to do its duty.

"I've heard people say, 'I'm not going to vote in this election.' That's wrong. Absolutely wrong," Schaefer said. "Someone is going to win. Someone will be governor. Someone will be county executive. Someone will be comptroller. Don't stay at home and say, 'Well, I don't like what's going on.' It's imperative. Get out and vote and bring another voter with you."

In Howard County, Republican state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe worries that voters' reluctance to participate on primary day could carry over into the general election. He plans to hand out "thank you for participating" fliers that invite people to remember him Nov. 3.

Democrat Elizabeth Bobo, who represents a liberal Howard County district in the House of Delegates, said the president's difficulties have produced a level of confusion -- but few true dropouts. "Yeah, they're turned off," she said. "They're very disturbed by the president, but does that mean they want to see him impeached? No. And I'm not hearing a lot of people say they won't vote."

'It's quiet'

In Rosedale and Dundalk, Democratic Del. John S. Arnick, says he hears virtually nothing. "It's quiet," he said -- not a good sign.

Usually, a primary generates excitement, activity, visible campaigning. This year, he said, there's little inclination to credit government for new and renovated schools in the district, new community centers and sound barriers along highways.

Democrats are not concerned about the outcome of the primary, which Glendening should win easily over two others on the ballot. Of these, Davidsonville physician Terry McGuire has put on the most energetic campaign -- but he had the support of 7 percent of those polled in a recent survey conducted for The Sun and other news organizations.

False security

Prospects for a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary disappeared in August with the withdrawal of Howard County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, though her name will appear on the ballot. Her challenge may have left a mark on the voters' consciousness nonetheless: McFadden says her withdrawal may have left Glendening supporters believing the governor is secure without their votes.

Pollster Haller agrees that thinking could be fatal for Glendening.

The governor's base is heavily concentrated in the large Central Maryland jurisdictions of Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties. In Baltimore, low turnout has been the rule except when there are African-American candidates running for president or mayor -- not the case this year.

"When the general election race is likely to be tight, every single vote makes a difference," Haller said. "His No. 1 objective has to be increasing turnout within the core Democratic areas -- and it's probably true that a lower primary turnout probably portends a lower turnout in the general."

A large lead

Sauerbrey apparently enjoys an insuperable lead over her challenger, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, according to polls.

Similarly, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has virtually no opposition in her bid for a third term, while a handful of lesser-known Republican candidates are competing to oppose her in the Nov. 3 general election.

None of the eight Congress members from Maryland faces a serious challenge.

Until recently, good times were said to be the engine of voter complacency. With employment up, and the stock market soaring, voters possessed few of the concerns that usually generate vigorous balloting. Then the market dropped sharply. And now, the damper comes from the White House -- the clearest reflector of the volatility cited by Haller.

Baltimore Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Democrat, said she sympathizes with voters who are unhappy that Washington's political and media establishment seems trapped in a cycle of reports on the president's sex life at the expense of pressing issues: the threat of economic collapse around the world, the domestic crisis in health care costs, and a failing public education system.

Clinton scandal fears

Many Democrats fear the Clinton-Lewinsky matter will continue to discourage their partisans. And several primaries conducted last Tuesday and earlier this year seem to bear that out.

In New Hampshire, about 20 percent of voters turned out for an election in which Republicans nominated a retired farmer, Fred Tuttle, to oppose Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.

In Arizona, incomplete results showed the primary turnout running about 16 percent.

In Dane County, Wis., only 30 percent of the voters turned out for highly contested Republican and Democratic congressional races.

In Baltimore, McFadden boards his re-election trolley two or three times a week in an effort to stimulate interest wherever he can.

He and other African-American senators and delegates are urging voters to show up Tuesday lest Republicans take over the State House and reduce the number of black legislators by redrawing election maps to put black candidates in districts that are predominantly white or Republican.

Redistricting -- the process of redrawing boundaries -- will take place after the 2000 census. If Republicans win the governor's office, they will preside over that highly political process. African-American candidates, virtually all of them Democrats, say their party will be more sensitive to the black community than the GOP.

Getting out the vote

"We're going to work real hard to get out a decent vote," McFadden said. "That will be a carry-over for the general election."

Both the Sauerbrey and Glendening camps say they will be testing their get-out-the-vote teams with all the usual tools: phone banks, transportation, literature drops and door-knocking.

"We think our base will be energized by their tremendous enthusiasm to elect Ellen Sauerbrey governor," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Sauerbrey spokeswoman.

Karen White, Glendening's campaign manager, discounted the Clinton-Lewinsky impact on turnout: "I think people in Maryland really care about what the governor of Maryland is going to do and when it comes down to it, they will focus on that and not on national issues."

Turnout rates

0 For recent Maryland gubernatorial primaries:

.......... Republican ..... Democrat

1994 ..... 37% ............ 42%

1990 ..... 25% ............ 39%

1986 ..... 28% ............ 48%

1982 ..... 34% ............ 48%

SOURCE: State election board

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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