GOP vows to come back after election setback

The Baltimore Sun

Weep not for Howard County's Republican Party, its leaders say. The GOP may have suffered setbacks in last week's election -- losing the county executive race and an incumbent state Senate seat -- but party stalwarts are confident that they will do better next time, and for a specific reason.

"I'm very confident in the incompetence of the Democrats," said Brian Harlin, outgoing Republican Party chairman, who expects taxes and spending to rise during the next four years. "If Democrats in this county do what I think they're going to do, we'll be OK."

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller agreed, saying "runaway spending" and higher state and local taxes will drive voters back to the GOP.

Party leaders at the local level blame their losses on the national political tide, saying that voters were sending a message to President Bush while ignoring local candidates' qualifications.

"The thing that bothers me the most is a thing like Merdon's race," Harlin said. "I didn't realize Howard County residents were that stupid." Republican Christopher J. Merdon lost decisively to Democrat Ken Ulman in the county executive race.

Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman won re-election and is now the top-ranking Republican official in the county.

"I won't say we're going to control the government four years from now, but it won't [take] as long as in the past," Kittleman said. Republicans controlled county government from 1994 to 1998. "I think four years from now we could see a very different election."

Democrats dismissed those comments, claiming that Ulman's victory, as well as that of other Democrats, was well-earned, though national issues were involved.

"That's a quintessential sour grapes response," said Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "The election was a referendum on [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich and [Lt. Gov. Michael S.] Steele's failed record, which includes raising a lot of taxes."

Democrats took four of the five County Council seats, the county executive position and defeated Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, which gives them eight of Howard's 11 General Assembly seats. Statewide Democratic candidates also won in Howard, though absentee ballots cut Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's lead in the county to less than 1,000 votes.

In Howard County, Democrats won despite a 30 percent income tax increase that Democrats pushed through in 2003, though County Executive James N. Robey -- who moves to the state Senate -- dropped the property tax rate 3 cents this fiscal year.

Ulman's campaign was not as flashy as Merdon's, but it was effective in turning out Democrats and in attracting independent voters, said Roger Caplan, a public relations executive who helped in Republican Charles I. Ecker's come-from-behind win in 1990 and was a key figure in the Ulman effort.

"Ken is a brilliant political person," Caplan said. "He had Democrats organized like I have never seen. When Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow talk [in an Ulman campaign robo-call message] about having a smoke-free county, that cuts across party lines. It's a very powerful message."

Ulman's brother, Doug, a cancer survivor, works for Armstrong and got to know singer Crow when she dated the cycling champion. Both of them also are cancer survivors.

Tony McGuffin, until recently Howard County Democratic Party chairman, said Democrats are intent on "shoring up the voting blocs we depend on."

Based on last week's showing, those voting blocs look pretty solid.

In his victory, Ulman built a lead of more than 14,000 votes in the three County Council districts that cover Columbia and the southeastern county. In contrast, Merdon won in his Ellicott City-Elkridge council district by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Republicans who thought they had a chance in the southeastern county, such as delegate candidate Mary Beth Tung and County Council candidate Donna Thewes, lost by huge margins. Thewes won only two of 18 precincts in her district and is upset to think that voters chose a party without seriously considering her as an individual.

"I worked for two years for a position that I'm not going to hold," said an upset Thewes. "I've learned not to mess with politics. Now I have to find a job."

Meanwhile, David Osmundson, the only Democrat to run for House of Delegates in the Republican-dominated District 9A, covering the western county and Ellicott City, came within 2,500 votes of incumbent Miller's total. A political novice, Osmundson won some eastern county precincts that otherwise favored Republicans.

"I thought I had a good chance of winning." Osmundson said.

Other results showed that voters sometimes did pick and choose among candidates.

In Ellicott City and Elkridge, Republicans running for state offices and county executive won most precincts, but some voters switched to Democrats for the County Council and General Assembly.

At St. Augustine School in Elkridge, voters chose Ehrlich by an 18-point margin, Steele by 12 points and Merdon by 15 points, but also chose Democrats for the General Assembly and County Council.

"I think it's a matter of people getting to know you and [being] satisfied with your performance," said state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat who, along with two Democratic delegates and Courtney Watson, a Democrat running for County Council, won the precinct.

Watson won all but four precincts in her district, but Republican Tony Salazar kept it close and might try again.

"Right now, I'm re-evaluating. I'm going to stay active with the local Republicans," Salazar said.

Watson said: "District 1 is a swing district. They flip-flop back and forth on local races."

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