It's nearly two years until Baltimore County voters pick their next county executive, but Democrats and Republicans are already preparing for a race that both parties expect to be highly competitive.
Democrats, who have held the office since 1994, are eager to defend their turf. Three prominent officials — County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, state Sen. Jim Brochin and former state Del. John Olszewski Jr. — say they are considering a run to lead the state's third-largest county.
"We want to keep the momentum going," said Tara Ebersole, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee.
But Republicans, encouraged by the election of GOP Gov. Larry Hogan in 2014, see their best opportunity to win Baltimore County executive in decades. Hogan won the county two years ago with nearly 60 percent of the vote; the popular governor will be on the ballot again in 2018.
Del. Pat McDonough says he's thinking about the job. Other potential candidates include state House Republican Whip Kathy Szeliga, fresh from a run for U.S. Senate, and Laura Neuman, the former county executive in Anne Arundel.
The GOP will provide "resources to run a better campaign" for Baltimore County executive than in the past, said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
The seat will be left open by the departure of current County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who is limited to two terms. The Democrat won the job in 2010 with 54 percent of the vote and was re-elected in 2014 with 56 percent. The last Republican executive was Roger B. Hayden, who was elected to a single term in 1990.
No candidate has officially announced a campaign for 2018.
"Lots of folks are interested," said Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee. "I think that lots of people are anxious to give the other party a try, because they haven't been impressed with what they've seen of late with the Democrats."
Almond said "a lot of people are looking at a lot of different options, now that the national election is over. We're all looking ahead to see what we're going to do. For me, personally, it's another year before anything public happens."
The Reisterstown Democrat, in her second term on the County Council, said she's been encouraged to run but is focusing for now on her work as council chairwoman.
"I don't think you get a promotion if you don't do your present job well," she said.
Brochin has an independent streak that sometimes rankles Democratic leaders in the state Senate, and he said it's unlikely he'll rise to higher positions in Annapolis. He said he is "seriously considering" a run for county executive.
He said the job would give him an opportunity to reform a system that he said favors the interests of developers and attorneys over residents.
"It's a system that's rigged," the Towson Democrat said. "I think that communities and the community associations and the people are the last ones that are considered."
Olszewski was once a political insider — he was a state delegate, and his father was a councilman — but now he finds himself on the outside. In 2014, he lost a bid to represent Dundalk in the state Senate, and his father retired.
He formed a group called Better Baltimore County and has goneto festivals and community events to meet and talk to voters. The group's website carries the authority line of Olszewski's campaign committee, but he declined to say whether it's a precursor to a formal campaign.
"Look, to the extent there is a campaign, it will be helping inform the work we do," Olszewski said. "I'd like to see it continue regardless."
The picture on the Republican side is less clear, with a longer list of potential candidates, but only one —McDonough — speaking openly about a campaign.
McDonough, a conservative radio talk-show host from Middle River, lost a challenge to Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger this month. He said he's keeping his campaign consultants on the job and holding two fundraisers in the next two months, which will help him decide if he can raise enough money to launch a successful campaign.
"It's trending where people want a change in Baltimore County," McDonough said. The Republicans have a good shot, he said, so long as they are willing to put forward a tough politician, not "some mushy Republican."
Other potential Republican include Szeliga, Neuman, County Councilman Wade Kach; state Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer, and Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr.
Szeliga, who lives in Perry Hall, said it's too soon to say what her future holds.
Szeliga raised her profile with her Senate run against Democrat Chris Van Hollen and built a team of campaign workers and volunteers that could prove useful in a future run.
For now, though, she'll say only: "I'm definitely running for something."
Kach represents northern Baltimore County on the County Council after serving 40 years in the House of Delegates. He said he hadn't thought about running for county executive until people started nudging him this year.
Kach said it's too soon to say what he'll run for in 2018.
"All I can say is, four years ago at this time, I had not made my mind to run for County Council," he said. "It's just too early. I'm not ruling it out."
Neuman was appointed Anne Arundel County executive in 2013 to succeed John R. Leopold, who was convicted of misconduct in office and resigned. She lost the 2014 Republican primary for the job to eventual executive Steve Schuh.
Neuman moved from Annapolis to Towson this year. She said she's flattered that people have asked her to run, but a campaign is not at the top of her list right now.
"I'm always amazed and surprised by that kind of support," she said. "It's really touching that folks know the work I did in Anne Arundel."
Redmer, in his second turn as state insurance commissioner, has been named as a possible candidate by insiders from both parties. He said he's not currently weighing a run.
"I'm not a candidate," the Middle River man said. "I've been mentioned every cycle since 1998, and I have never run.
"The rumor mill continues."
Still, Redmer, who spent 12 years in the House of Delegates, wouldn't completely rule out a campaign.
"When you run for public office, you never say you're never going to run again," he said.
Ports also spent 12 years in the House of Delegates and is now working in a Republican administration for the second time. The Nottingham man could not be reached for comment.
The field of candidates could begin to take shape after January, when campaign finance committees must file annual reports.
Each party's nominee could easily spend $1 million. Republicans say their candidate might be able to spend less if the party rallies behind a single candidate before the primary.
Hogan's victory two years ago helped Baltimore County Republicans gain seats in the House of Delegates, state Senate and County Council.
County Democrats hold a 2-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration. Democrats say they aren't taking Baltimore County for granted.
"The party is very, very much interested in Baltimore County -— always has been, always will be," said Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "We intend to treat Baltimore County as a battleground jurisdiction for 2018."