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The Connie Morella effect [Commentary]

The tighter the Maryland governor's race becomes, the more I think about Connie Morella.

For those who moved recently to the state, Ms. Morella is the former moderate Republican congresswoman from Maryland's 8th District. For eight terms she held that seat in what was then an almost exclusively Montgomery County-based and slightly Democratic-leaning district.

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Ms. Morella's formula for defeating a string of Democratic challengers was to mix traditional Republican business positions with a more Democratic-friendly social set of policy positions, notably on reproductive choice. Only after Gov. Parris Glendening and the Democratic legislature gerrymandered her district during the 2000 round of redistricting was Chris Van Hollen, the 8th District's current occupant, able to dislodge Ms. Morella from a seat the Democrats long coveted.

Lt. Governor Anthony Brown's victory formula is fairly straightforward: Start with a strong base of support of African Americans in his home county, Prince George's, plus Baltimore City and pockets of Howard and Montgomery counties; mix in support from white liberals and union workers; and carve out enough support among socially moderate suburban voters to forge an insurmountable coalition against Republican challenger Larry Hogan.

The last part of that formula, however, hinges upon women voters — and, more specifically, white suburban women who tend to support reproductive choice at higher rates than do Catholic Latinas or more socially conservative African American women. Some of these suburban women, however, may find Republican nominee Hogan's economic platform more appealing.

In short, they're Connie Morella voters: women willing to hear out either party's nominee on economics, provided they are not first turned off by what they deem unacceptable views on social issues like abortion.

The Brown and Hogan campaigns recognize how pivotal these voters will be next month. That's why the Brown campaign is running television ads depicting Mr. Hogan as a staunch opponent of reproductive choice for women, even in cases of rape or incest — a set of claims Mr. Hogan calls "complete lies."

In his TV response ads, Mr. Hogan pledges not to change the state's liberal abortion policies, which he says were settled in 1992 when Maryland voters approved the Question 6 ballot measure. Earlier this month, as The Sun's Michael Dresser and John Fritze reported, Mr. Hogan also held a rally in Annapolis — complete with pink shirt-clad female supporters and personal testimony from one of his daughters — in which the Republican nominee promised to support women's access to health care, including contraception.

Beyond Maryland, what's interesting about this inter-party fight between Messrs. Brown and Hogan is that it confirms how much culture war politics have changed in the past two decades. In the mid-1990s, many Democrats voted for laws like the Defense of Marriage Act, or tried to lure white Catholics by hedging on issues like abortion, because they didn't want to be victimized by strategic Republicans utilizing wedge politics to pit different parts of the Democratic coalition against one another.

Although culture war politics still favor conservatives and Republicans in the bright red states, on issues including gay marriage, marijuana use and abortion, the electorate and female voters especially have shifted significantly toward a more liberal — or if you prefer, libertarian — stance.

The Sun's new poll shows Mr. Brown leading Mr. Hogan statewide by 7 points, a margin similar to the average yielded by the three previous statewide polls. Among men, Mr. Hogan leads by 8 points, 43 percent to 35 percent. But Mr. Brown's lead among women — 49 percent to 33 percent — is twice that.

Mr. Hogan is within striking distance, but he can win only if he keeps the focus exclusively on topics related to job growth, the economy, state spending and fiscal management. (Monday's debate sponsored by News Channel 8 certainly helped: Other than guns, there was no discussion of abortion or related cultural issues.)

Mr. Hogan needs not attract a majority of female votes to win. But if he can keep his margin to single-digits — to "Connie Morella levels" — the Maryland gubernatorial race becomes inconveniently competitive for Mr. Brown.

That's why both campaigns are paying close attention to female voters and reproductive rights.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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