GOP eyes Anne Arundel as key territory for gains in the state

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The radio ads attacking the Anne Arundel Democratic senators focused on medical malpractice and higher education funding.

But the subtext was clear.

With elections two years away, the state Republican Party is already eyeing Anne Arundel County, fertile ground for gains in an area that is increasingly among its most reliable strongholds.

"Anne Arundel is one of those Maryland communities to really watch with great political interest," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based public opinion research firm. "It has a Democratic registration edge, but it has become increasingly more conservative and Republican-leaning."

In state GOP Chairman John Kane's words: "It's Ehrlich country."

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won the county with a healthy 65 percent of the vote two years ago, and that's despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans, although by an increasingly narrow margin.

The explanation, political experts and party leaders say, lies in two political dynamics.

First, although Democratic voters have always outnumbered Republicans, the county's constituency is at its core conservative, especially fiscally.

Second, the county's growth, consisting largely of affluent and military families, has gradually tilted the balance toward Republicans over the past two decades.

The number of registered Republicans has increased by more than 124 percent in the past 20 years, according to County Board of Elections figures. In comparison, the number of registered Democrats has increased by just 24 percent. The county currently has 136,382 registered Democrats and 120,134 Republicans.

The growing county has become a more important trophy, with the fourth-largest number of registered voters of any jurisdiction in the state.

"Anne Arundel is one of those bellwether counties," said Thomas F. Schaller, associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Schaller said Anne Arundel was one of five suburban counties chiefly responsible for Ehrlich's victory in 2002.

The county voted for George W. Bush in the presidential election last year but re-elected Janet S. Owens, a moderate Democrat, as its county executive two years earlier. It overwhelmingly supported Ehrlich, but its 20-member delegation consists of 12 Democrats -- including House Speaker Michael E. Busch, one of the governor's chief political rivals.

The contradictions can be explained by the region's competing forces and diversity. Some residents identify with Washington, others with Baltimore and many in Annapolis with neither. The northern section of the county is home to many blue-collar, Reagan Democrats. More agricultural areas to the south tend to be conservative as well.

Its voting base resembles that of many Southern states, where former conservative Democrats have gradually shifted parties.

"Anne Arundel County has always been conservative," Owens said. "If you look at its roots, it's rural, it's agricultural and it's military."

Owens, who grew up on a South County tobacco farm, said she was raised as a fiscal conservative but a social progressive. County Democrats can still succeed with that formula, she said. "But there's no room in the county for anyone who wants to tax and spend."

That is exactly the message the recent ads were trying to send: that three Democratic senators are tax-and-spend liberals. The lawmakers denounce the message as completely false.

The ads urged voters to call upon the senators to oppose new taxes and thus support Ehrlich's vetoes of the medical malpractice bill and the cap on higher-education tuition. The malpractice bill was designed to hold down doctors' malpractice insurance rates, in part by raising taxes on HMOs. The tuition bill sought to limit tuition increases at state universities, in part by raising corporate income taxes.

The point of the ads appeared to cast the three Democrats in a negative light, as much as to change their vote.

The three - Sens. John C. Astle, James E. DeGrange Sr. and Philip C. Jimeno - are all considered moderates. Jimeno, 57, and Astle, 61, have served as state lawmakers for more than two decades. DeGrange, 55, a former county councilman, was first elected as a delegate in 1999. Both DeGrange and Jimeno had sizable margins of victory of 60 percent or more last year. Astle got 55.4 percent of the vote.

DeGrange called the ads an attempt to intimidate three lawmakers who have supported some of Ehrlich's initiatives in the past. Jimeno said the message is clear. "This isn't about medical malpractice. It's not about veto overrides. ... This is about the election of 2006."

But Jimeno said he does not feel vulnerable. "I'm a fiscal conservative, pro-life and pro-gun," Jimeno said. "I represent truly my constituency."

The General Assembly voted to override the governor's veto on the medical malpractice bill yesterday, but the tuition cap died after House Democratic leaders did not bring it up for a vote. DeGrange and Jimeno voted to override the governor's malpractice veto. But Astle reversed course and voted to sustain the veto. He could not be reached for comment last night.

Political observers said that as the GOP goes after them, the three senators are protected by their stature.

"If these guys weren't who they were, they wouldn't win," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. "These guys are known quite well for a long period, back from the time when Anne Arundel was a more Democratic-leaning county. There is an excellent chance that the three districts will turn around and become Republican when those guys retire."

Republicans are waiting in the wings. Michael Malone, who recently stepped down as head of the county's GOP central committee, said his party is eagerly awaiting 2006, when it sees a chance to seize the county executive's office, win a broader majority on the County Council and help re-elect Ehrlich. "I think the '06 election will be the time for Republicans to put their stamp on Anne Arundel County," he said.

Even Democrats said the county is turning Republican. "You don't have to be a genius to interpret the numbers," said Dennis Callahan, a former Annapolis mayor. "Many people are saying it will be impossible for a Democrat to win in the next election."

Haller, the pollster, said it's a given that Republicans will turn to Anne Arundel in the hope of picking up state Senate seats in the next election.

"It's got to be prime meat for the Republicans as part of their grand plan to reach majority status in the state," he said.

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