With the filing deadline for candidates passed, Maryland's much-anticipated election season officially kicked off last week. For the first time in a half-century, a Republican governor is running as an incumbent. Long-suffering members of Maryland's GOP have been looking forward to this day from the moment Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected governor in 2002. And with an improved economy, and voters' historic penchant for re-electing incumbent governors, they would appear to have reason to celebrate.
But last week's candidate filings - and the latest polls - reveal quite a different story. After so long out of power, Republican plans for this fall appear to have been stymied not only by a dearth of experienced, credible or even well-known candidates but also by some unfortunate timing. Public disapproval of President Bush and the Republican-led Congress continues at a vigorous boil, and the chances of that anger spilling over into state and local races pose a formidable obstacle to Mr. Ehrlich and his allies.
The prime example of this is in Baltimore County, a key battleground for Mr. Ehrlich this fall. Republicans had such difficulty finding a credible candidate to face County Executive James T. Smith Jr. that they had to recruit a political neophyte, a state police commander who had initially filed as a candidate for county sheriff, at the last minute to run against him.
The state GOP has been aiming to gain enough seats in the General Assembly to prevent Democratic veto overrides and bolster opportunities for Senate filibusters (better known as the "if you can't fight them, gridlock them" strategy). But their stated targets, including Southern Maryland's Roy P. Dyson, Anne Arundel County's John C. Astle and Baltimore County's James Brochin and Katherine A. Klausmeier, appear less vulnerable than they did a year ago. Meanwhile, Democrats have their own targets, including Howard County's Sandra B. Schrader and the Eastern Shore's Richard F. Colburn.
While national politics don't usually sway local elections, anger toward President Bush has reached such a pitch that even Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for the U.S. Senate and a strong Bush supporter, is trying hard to avoid commenting on issues of consequence. His advisers no doubt recall that in 1994, Parris N. Glendening's seemingly easy cruise to the governor's office became a near-upset thanks to an anti-Bill Clinton backlash and the Newt Gingrich revolution.
Still, Republicans need not despair. They would be wise to remember that four years ago, polls suggested Kathleen Kennedy Townsend held a lead at this point in the race. But it's also time for a reality check. It may be that maintaining the status quo would be a victory for Maryland Republicans - and not an easily acquired one at that.