Tuesday's primary election will determine much of the state legislature and congressional delegation in parts of Maryland where one political party is dominant. It will also tee up Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's quest for a fifth term and a rematch in the race for governor.
After polls close at 8 p.m., Baltimore will learn whether State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy will continue in the job she has held for 15 years, or succumb to an aggressive challenge from attorney Gregg Bernstein.
An expensive contest pitting two longtime Baltimore County councilmen who want to be the next county executive will be over, and the winner should be the favorite in November. Voters in left-leaning Prince George's County will in essence select a new top executive from five Democratic candidates vying for the job.
"When you watch two or three of the big jurisdictions, [the] primary is in actuality the general election," said former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "Most elected officeholders will indeed be re-elected or newly elected [today]. Therefore, that creates a lot of interest."
The results will provide the first indication of whether Maryland will follow an emerging national trend that is seeing angry voters rejecting incumbents. In Colorado, Alaska, and Utah, conservative Republicans have knocked off centrist incumbents in statewide races. And in Delaware, Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Castle will face off today against tea party-funded Christine O'Donnell.
"I get the sense that actually the anger that is talked about at great lengths does not particularly show itself in Maryland," Taylor said. "I think the incumbent government — the O'Malley administration and the Democrat majorities — are really not being blamed for a whole lot of our national problems right now."
But if Taylor is wrong, a big task for many incumbents, particularly Democrats, will be to quell as much anger as they can before the Nov. 2. general election.
Primaries are closed in Maryland, meaning only Republicans can vote in the Republican contests, and just Democrats on the Democratic side. That means independents — a growing group — won't be allowed to vote in today's most significant contests. And Republicans angry at Democratic incumbents have little chance to voice their anger, at least today.
State elections chief Linda Lamone predicts that voter turnout will slightly exceed that in earlier years — but not by much. She's guessing 32 percent of registered voters will cast ballots. The expected sunny weather combined with a high number of contested local primary races, will generate larger numbers at the polls, she said.
Four years ago, 29.6 percent of voters turned out for the primary. In 2002 it was 30.7 percent.
"You have got places around the state this year where there's much more interest," Lamone said.
One person who might be hoping for low turnout is Bernstein, the white candidate for city state's attorney trying to unseat Patricia Jessamy, who is black. "A low turnout from the African-American community will help Gregg [Bernstein]," said former Baltimore state Sen. Larry Young.
Young said many of the listeners to the morning radio show he hosts are backing Jessamy, and an impromptu caller poll Monday had the incumbent ahead of Bernstein by a 6-to1 margin.
Nonetheless, Young, who is not endorsing either candidate, said Bernstein could be helped by the fact that four of the city's six senators representing predominantly black districts have little or no primary opposition. If those senators "had serious challengers, they would have put on serious campaigns" that would boost turnout, Young said.
The most heated Baltimore Senate primary is in a mostly white district that straddles the waterfront neighborhoods. There, six-term Sen. George Della is facing 27-year-old Bill Ferguson, a former Teach for America volunteer who has raised over $200,000.
But, Young said, white turnout there could be balanced by the other hot race, in Northeast Baltimore, where Sen. Joan Carter Conway is fending off a challenge from former Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Hector Torres. Conway endorsed Jessamy and is known for her formidable Election Day army of volunteers clad in purple and gold attire.
Those two Baltimore districts are among the nine state Senate seats that will effectively be decided today; the others are mostly in heavily Democratic Prince George's County. Ten incumbents in the 47-member state Senate did not draw any challengers from either party. About half of the 141 members of the House of Delegates will be determined by today's vote.
Mikulski is expected to win her primary easily as she seeks a fifth term. The Republican candidate who has been campaigning most aggressively is Eric Wargotz, a Queen Anne's County commissioner and physician.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, are expected to beat lesser-known challengers to set up a reprise of their 2006 contest. But campaign operatives and strategists will be scrutinizing the vote margins, looking for signs of weakness if lesser-known candidates rack up bigger-than-expected numbers.
Four years ago, neither faced a primary opponent.
In 2002, Ehrlich skated to victory in the primary, collecting 93 percent of the vote against two opponents. This time he has attracted a more substantial challenge from political newcomer Brian Murphy, a bakery company investor and former commodities trader who was endorsed in August by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The size of Murphy's total could show the strength of the burgeoning tea party movement in Maryland.
It could also reflect Republican loyalty to Ehrlich, the state party's standard-bearer for years.
"It is the 20 percent rule," said Herbert Smith, a McDaniel College political science professor, referring to the 2002 Democratic primary when a retired grocery store clerk held Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to 80 percent of the vote. That primary is now viewed as a cautionary tale: Townsend went on to become the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1966 to lose the general election.
"That one, in retrospect, seemed to be significant," said Smith of the primary. "A nobody got one of five votes."
The same 20-percent test holds for O'Malley, who faces his first contested statewide primary. (Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan dropped out before the September election.)
O'Malley's opponents hardly pose political threats — one is running on a ticket with his sister, and the other has been charged five times for failing to pay child support and defacing state property — so most Democratic votes that don't go his way will be interpreted as protest votes.
Democratic aides are tamping down expectations: They are pointing to 1986, when then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer got 62 percent of the vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but went on to win the general election.
Schaefer's main opponent, however, was no novice. Getting 35 percent of the primary vote that year was a statewide official: former Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.
Polling place locator
To find your polling place, go to the state elections board website at http://www.elections.state.md.us