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GOP solidifies Harford dominance as Democrats skip top races

This year's election should eliminate any doubts about which party controls politics in Harford County, where less than two decades ago Democrats held nearly every elected office but are now ceding the highest posts to Republicans without even fielding contenders.

No Democrat is running for county executive or County Council president. Nor are there Democrats campaigning in three of the six council races.

A Republican state senator who was appointed to his seat in 2007 has no challenger in the primary or general election.

Democrats have limited themselves to a few races they consider winnable. Experts and local politicians cite a gradual demographic shift, which brought thousands of new, more conservative families to the county.

"This is the culmination of a trend reflecting the growing weakness of Democrats in Harford County," said Avery Ward, a longtime political science teacher who now is dean of behavioral social science at Harford Community College. "Republicans started gaining strength in the 1980s, especially when a lot of young voters joined the party. There also was a strong local leadership building the party. We have seen a striking shift in power over the last 25 years."

Harford's political scene illustrates a continuing trend in Maryland politics — with Republican-leaning communities such as Carroll County, the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland growing more conservative, as Democrats build and maintain majorities in places such as Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Candidates and political observers have been wringing their hands over the widening divide, saying a lack of competitive races can lead to a loss of moderate voices in the halls of state and local government.

It wasn't that long ago that Harford was led by a Democrat – County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, who served two terms in the 1990s and made an abbreviated attempt for governor in 1998. In her first race as executive, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Harford by more than 2-to-1.

Democrats still hold a narrow voter registration edge -— 62,236 to 61,652 — but that has not helped them at the polls.

"In the '80s, if you won in the primary, you won," Rehrmann said. "That's still true, but the outcome of the story is the exact opposite."

Kim Wagner, chairwoman of Harford's Republican Central Committee, can remember coaxing Republicans into running 15 years ago. Today, she said, "we have interest, energy and excitement and we can give voters a variety of choices."

Democrat Art Helton insists his party has the same enthusiasm, if not the candidates. He is challenging Republican Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who has represented Harford and Cecil counties since 1998. Helton, who lost his bid for county executive in 1998, has worked on voter registration drives for the past few years in the heavily Democratic area along U.S. 40, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1.

Ann C. Helton, his wife, lost the county executive race in 2006 to incumbent David R. Craig by about four percentage points. In the area where her husband is now running, she won by a significant margin.

"Obviously, Dems are having trouble in Harford," Art Helton said. "Our strategy was to choose winnable spots and concentrate on those. We are gaining in registered voters. The real test will come in the turnout."

Wagner is even a little worried she won't be returned to her elected position as a local party leader because her name comes at end of a long alphabetical list of 37 Republican candidates vying for 12 seats.

"This bodes really well for the future of the party in Harford," said Ryan Mahoney, spokesman for the Maryland Republican Party. "They can build from a great farm team."

Republican prospects in Harford have grown over the years as some Democrats switched parties when they jumped from local to countywide office. Defections occurred often enough that when the New Harford Democratic Club formed in 2005, its leaders required prospective candidates to sign a pledge to remain in the party or repay money spent on their campaigns.

"We may be in tough times, but we have not lost our vision, one in which the responsibility of governing outweighs the lure of money," said Wendy L. Sawyer, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

As Harford has grown more suburban, the way people run for office has changed in ways that seem to benefit Republicans more.

Door-to-door campaigning and building networks in historic communities like Bel Air has become more difficult for candidates, with people making long daily commutes to their jobs. Campaigns are more about raising money — and attracting the moneyed interests. Developers and larger businesses favor Republicans in Harford.

"Now you have to raise a lot more money and you have to connect to voters on a whole other level," Rehrmann said. "You can't go door to door, when no one is home during the day. And, if you can't raise money, you have no chance."

While Republicans are crowing, Democrats said they are narrowing their focus on potentially winnable races, such as Helton's Senate bid. Incumbent Sheriff Jesse Bane is making a bid for a second term, and two Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election to the council. Democrats hold two seats in the House of Delegates, and several newcomers are trying to unseat Republican incumbents in other districts.

"Running for office requires a great deal of passion and money," Sawyer said. "We will do everything we can to keep Democrats in office. We have a good chance to hold our own and pick up a few seats."

A lack of competition for the top county seats could create voter apathy and a low turnout, Ward said, and last-minute appointees that the parties are allowed to make to fill ballot vacancies will do little to inspire voters.

"Those candidates are perceived as reluctant and forced to run," he said. "The best candidate is one who has emerged from a competitive primary that gave an opportunity to build a political base."

Rehrmann said she does not see a return to power for Harford Democrats in the near future, but she feels confident that her party's candidates are offering messages that will resonate with voters.

Ward always tells his students that politics has elements of magic and mystery, but he doesn't see any major change brewing in Harford this year. That's not necessarily a good thing for either side.

"Just as it wasn't good when Democrats dominated, it is not good for Republicans to dominate," Ward said. "There should be a balance of power that spurs competitive ideas. Ultimately, the best political environment is the one that is productive and enlightening for voters."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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