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In Senate race, Szeliga pins hopes on 'purpling' of Maryland

In Senate race, Szeliga pins hopes on 'purpling' of Maryland
Republican state Delegate Kathy Szeliga, campaigning for the Maryland Senate seat. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The conventional wisdom for the November election to replace Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski goes like this: The presidential race will drive Maryland's heavy contingent of Democrats to the polls, virtually assuring the party's nominee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, will win.

But Republican nominee Kathy Szeliga, a 54-year-old state lawmaker from Baltimore County, is already pushing back on that forecast. And she has at least one powerful argument in her favor.

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This year, the conventional wisdom has gotten it wrong at just about every turn.

A number of observers said the second-term state delegate ran a shrewd campaign to win the GOP nomination — including a snappy TV ad that featured her riding a motorcycle — and is sounding all the right themes for the general election.

The question is whether any Republican can mimic Gov. Larry Hogan's success in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.

"She knows what she's doing," said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But she's picked a really tough year to do it in."

Van Hollen, a seven-term congressman from Montgomery County and seasoned campaigner, emerged from a feisty Democratic primary with Rep. Donna F. Edwards stronger than expected. Not only did he win by 14 points, he led with women despite running against one, and he carried Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties by a margin more than twice as large as his loss in Baltimore City.

The 57-year-old Kensington man also was able to raise significantly more money for the primary — $8 million — than Szeliga's $434,000.

Both candidates must now reach beyond traditional supporters to woo independent voters, and navigate while a separate race for president is all but certain to have influence down the ballot.

Registered Democrats make up just over 2 million of the state's voters, compared with 997,211 Republicans and 675,436 people who choose not to affiliate with a party.

"I think the smart money has to be on Van Hollen," said Richard E. Vatz, who teaches political rhetoric at Towson University. "But the smartest money thinks Szeliga has a chance to upset him."

Two factors could have a big impact on the Senate election: turnout and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In the 2014 gubernatorial contest, Republican underdog Hogan beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in a year when turnout fell statewide by 7 percent from 2010, the previous nonpresidential election year, and dropped even more in the Democratic strongholds of Baltimore City (14 percent) and Montgomery County (9 percent).

If interest in the presidential election boosts overall turnout, that's likely to help Van Hollen. If voters are turned off by an election that could prove to be intensely negative, that might help GOP candidates in Maryland.

Trump himself remains a wild card. While his candidacy has made conventional Republican candidates uncomfortable, he has also brought many new voters to the polls.

And if establishment GOP donors wary of Trump abandon the presidential race, that could free up political money for congressional races that otherwise might have been overlooked.

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Democrats, at least, are banking that Trump will be a net negative for Szeliga. The New York businessman remains deeply unpopular with general election voters, particularly women and Latinos.

"Elections are about choices, and Chris is eager to match his record and agenda against Delegate Szeliga, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party," Bridgett Frey, a spokeswoman for the Van Hollen campaign, said in a statement. "The GOP's agenda fails to invest in our families and our future."

Szeliga, who made her status as a mother and grandmother a focus of her primary campaign, has handled Trump delicately. She has vowed to support the Republican nominee for president — a stronger position than Hogan has taken — but has said she has reservations about many of his statements.

The Perry Hall woman said she sees the potential for supporters of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to cross over and vote for a Republican woman for Senate in Maryland.

"We're not here saying there's an easy path to victory for me," she said in an interview. "But there certainly is a path and there is an opportunity."

Szeliga has tried to capitalize on the hand-wringing among Maryland Democrats over the possibility of sending an all-male delegation to Washington for the first time in decades. All the state's incumbents, and the favorites to win the House seats left vacant by Edwards and Van Hollen, are men.

That possibility was a central component of Edwards' pointed concession speech last week.

"Are Maryland voters willing to send a congressional delegation to Washington that looks like 1973?" Szeliga asked. "That is not what Maryland looks like today."

Szeliga's main goal now is to convince GOP donors that Maryland isn't a foregone conclusion. Toward that end, her campaign is circulating a memo headlined "The Purpling of Maryland."

The campaign points to Hogan's high popularity and the increase in the number of Republican state lawmakers.

The memo also signals a message Szeliga and her surrogates are likely to hit hard in the months to come: that Van Hollen is "the ultimate DC insider."

Edwards made a similar argument without success.

"Voters strongly supported Chris in the primary because of his proven ability to get results and his focus on opportunity for the middle class, good-paying jobs, and affordable college," Frey said.

Baltimore's suburbs will play a central role in the race, perhaps more so than they did during the primary. Of the counties with the largest share of general election votes, none shifted as dramatically from 2010 to 2014 as Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. In Baltimore County, 49 percent of voters chose Democrat Martin O'Malley in 2010. Four years later, 59 percent backed Hogan.

"All roads seem to lead through Baltimore County," said Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee.

He predicted Szeliga would succeed in part because "she really connects with a lot of people who are nontraditional voters."

But Mendelsohn's counterpart in Baltimore County, Democratic committee Chairman Robbie Leonard, said he thinks the fundamentals of the election will work in Van Hollen's favor.

The presidential race is driving interest, he said, both for people who want to support Clinton and voters who are diametrically opposed to Trump.

"People are excited," he said. "I've never seen anything like it before."

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