The race for the next Howard County executive is practically upon us. Republican state Sen. Allan Kittleman announced his bid in June; County Council Democrat Courtney Watson has scheduled a "special announcement" for Sept. 21 in Columbia, where she is expected to announce her candidacy.
Who knew that two graduates of Atholton Elementary would one day battle to lead Maryland's wealthiest county?
Leaders for the county's Democratic and Republican parties are gung ho about their respective candidates, who have about 14 months of campaigning ahead of the Nov. 4, 2014, general election.
Loretta Shields, chairwoman of the Howard County GOP, said she was "very excited about [Kittleman] being in the race."
Shields said she thought Kittleman was the more experienced candidate. "He's got experience at the county level, he understands what goes on at the state level and I'm looking forward to him coming back to the county level and leading us forward," she said.
Kittleman has served as a state senator from District 9 — which encompasses western Howard County, parts of Ellicott City and some of southern Carroll County — since 2004, when he was appointed to the seat to replace his late father, Bob Kittleman.
Prior to serving in the General Assembly, Allan Kittleman was a County Council member from 1998 to 2002.
Michael McPherson, chairman of Howard County's Democratic Central Committee, said he thought Watson had a lot of relevant experience for the county executive position.
"She has a good deal of experience at the local level," he said, "and that gives her a unique insight into what is really going on in the county and what is needed to continue the high quality of life here, which has been brought to the residents of this county by good, elected Democrats."
Watson has represented District 1 — which includes parts of Ellicott City, Elkridge and Hanover — on the County Council since 2006. Before that, she served a term on the Board of Education, including two years as chairwoman.
Both Shields and McPherson said the candidates would run on their accomplishments.
This race "gives them the opportunity to present two totally different records," Shields said.
"Anyone who runs for public office and has been active in public life has a record and they have to run on that record," McPherson said.
But beyond party stalwarts, experts said, the real focus of the race to succeed County Executive Ken Ulman will be to win over independent voters — particularly for Kittleman, whose Republican base in the county is smaller than the Democrats'.
As of Sept. 6, Howard County had 97,681 registered Democrats and 59,269 registered Republicans, according to the Board of Elections, a ratio of 1.6 Democrats for every 1 Republican. There are 44,367 independent voters up for grabs.
Howard County has only had one Republican executive, Chuck Ecker, who served from 1990 to 1998.
Ecker, 84, said he thought Kittleman would have to work hard to win. "It's going to be difficult, but any campaign is difficult," he said.
He attributed his own success to vigorous campaigning up until Election Day. "I think I worked hard campaigning and I'm not sure my predecessor did," he said, referring to the incumbent county executive at the time, Liz Bobo.
Ecker won the 1990 race by 421 votes.
Chris Merdon, a Republican and former County Council member who ran against Ulman in 2006, said he thought his loss was due in part to a hostile national climate toward Republicans halfway through former President George W. Bush's second term.
"When I ran against [Ulman], I had the endorsements of all the papers," he said. "I raised just about the same amount of money as [Ulman], but at the end of the day, national politics played a big role in the election."
Merdon doesn't see the same potential for backlash against the Democrats in 2014, although he said developments in Syria could hurt Democrats down the road, just as Republican opposition to the president's budget could hurt them.
"Being so close to Washington, D.C., I think Howard County gets its fair, or unfair, share [of political trickle-down]," Merdon said.
Local pollster Jason Booms, a Democrat and founder of Booms Research & Consulting, agreed.
"If the Obama administration's popularity is where it is now, it should help make for a more challenging race for the Democratic nominee for county executive," he said.
The environment in 2006, he added, was beneficial to Watson's race in District 1, which is known for being closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, and historically had elected Republican County Council members before Watson's victory.
When Watson won District 1 for the first time, defeating Republican candidate Tony Salazar, the margin was 988 votes. Watson took 52.3 percent of the votes and Salazar had 47.7 percent. She saw about the same results in 2010 in her win against former Del. and state Transportation Secretary Bob Flanagan, a Republican who is now seeking to return to the House of Delegates by running in District 9B.
Kittleman has had more comfortable margins in the more conservative 9th District. In his first state Senate election, in 2006, he defeated Democratic contender Rich Corkran by nearly 8,000 votes, winning 60.5 percent of the vote compared with Corkran's 39.5 percent.
His 2010 results were even better, with a 10,606-vote advantage over Democratic opponent Jim Adams.
Because most people tend to vote along party lines, according to political insiders, Watson would have the advantage of numbers in a countywide race.
But Booms said it's not quite that simple.
"I think the biggest problem Watson will have in 2014 will be getting the base to turn out," he said. "She has to motivate the base as well as appeal to independent voters."
Candidate personalities also have traditionally played a role in elections, sometimes overshadowing the issues.
Kittleman scores high in affability, said Booms, who said he had "an almost Chris Christie-like appeal," a reference to the New Jersey Republican governor's crossover likability among Democrats as well as Republicans.
"Watson can come across as more reserved, which can be misinterpreted by some as aloofness," he added.
But both candidates have proven their success at the polls and in their communities.
Howard Johnson, who as former president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association worked with both Watson and Kittleman, said each candidate had been helpful to the Elkridge community, particularly in dealing with CSX issues.
"Both of them have been great in their roles," said Johnson.
He hopes the election will stay focused on the issues.
"Being a legislator and being an executive are very different things," Johnson said. "The question is, what are they going to do in the future to accommodate the needs of people across the county?"
Booms summed up the general consensus: "It's going to be an exciting race."