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Has Dundalk gone to the GOP for good?

Dundalk was once a Democratic stronghold, but it's lately gone to the GOP. What happened?

While Larry Hogan triumphed in the Maryland governor's race, his fellow Republicans won legislative and the county council seats in Dundalk for the first time in decades, completing a dramatic partisan shift in one of the state's once reliably Democratic strongholds. The realignment culminated after years of disaffection and may create a lasting transformation.

Fifty years ago, Dundalk, the 12th election district, was the center of an east side Democratic organization that dominated county politics. In 1960, JFK received nearly 70 percent of the vote in the 12th; four years later, LBJ received about 75 percent.

At that time, the first tremors occurred on the political terrain as the civil rights movement grew. The Dundalk Democratic organization was white along with its blue-collar, heavily union constituency. Racially divisive Democrats such as George C. Wallace nationally and George P. Mahoney in Maryland found a receptive electorate in Dundalk. Mr. Wallace won the district in the 1964 and 1972 Democratic presidential primaries and received 20 percent of the independent vote in 1968. Mr. Mahoney, running on an anti-open housing platform ("Your Home is Your Castle") won the primary and general election vote in Dundalk en route to losing the 1966 gubernatorial race to Spiro T. Agnew.

Even as the political landscape changed and the Democratic Party drew more liberal-minded followers, Dundalk remained Democratic in most state and national contests from the 1970s through the 1990s. Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won every precinct in the 12th in 2000.

But then, the tide began to turn. The manufacturing economy, centering on Bethlehem Steel for decades, was in decline. At the same time, Dundalk was now represented in Congress by Republicans: first, Helen Delich Bentley, protector of the Port of Baltimore; then Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was raised in west-side working-class Arbutus. Both Ms. Bentley and Mr. Ehrlich were politically attuned to Dundalk's blue collar economic and cultural concerns.

In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich, elected Maryland's first GOP governor in 36 years, carried the 12th district precincts with ease. Two years later, incumbent Republican president George W. Bush carried 11of 12 precincts in Dundalk. In 2006, Gov. Ehrlich, despite losing his bid for reelection, won a majority of the 12th; four years later, in an unsuccessful comeback bid, he nonetheless swept Dundalk.

At the same time that Mr. Ehrlich's personal popularity remained strong in Dundalk, Republican presidential candidates seemed to benefit as well. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, swept the 12th's precincts against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (who nonetheless won the county). Mr. McCain's strong showing reflected his Navy background, as military service has long been traditional for Dundalk residents, extended over several generations. And Mr. Obama's race may or may not have played a factor. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the 12th, doing less well than Mr. McCain, losing four precincts to President Obama; perhaps Mr. Romney was perceived by some old union Democrats as a stereotypical "big business" Republican.

By 2014, the district's Democrats were either conservative, like state Sen. Norman Stone, or part of political families such as the Olszewskis or the Weirs. This year, Mr. Stone and the senior John Olszewski were retiring, while the younger John Olszewski ("Johnny O. Jr.") was seeking the senate seat, and incumbent Delegate Mike Weir Jr. was seeking another term.

In the GOP wave, Mr. Hogan swept Dundalk, winning precincts with over 70 percent and in several instances 80 percent of the vote. Again, race may have played a role in regard to Democratic candidate Anthony G. Brown, the lieutenant governor; however, displeasure with outgoing governor Martin O'Malley was likely a stronger factor. Resentment of Mr. O'Malley (and by extension, Mr. Brown) helped to fuel the down ticket sweep in Dundalk: Mr. Olszewski lost; Mr. Weir was defeated; and Republicans won the senate opening, all three House of Delegates seats and the Baltimore County Council position.

The question remaining is: Will Dundalk, soon to be represented by Republicans, shed its Democratic Party tradition permanently? Obviously, events will play a role with a volatile electorate; the candidates Democrats run will be another factor. Would they speak to the working class sensibilities of the area? For example, would Hillary Clinton (who carried Dundalk in the 2008 Democratic primary) bring wavering Democrats back if she seeks the presidency? Finally, will Mr. Hogan, after a term in office, retain Dundalk's loyalty as Mr. Ehrlich did? Only time will tell.

William J. Thompson is a Baltimore historian, teacher and writer. His e-mail is historybill@verizon.net.

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