Voters are choosing Maryland's next governor, a new delegation to the U.S. Congress and a new state General Assembly on Tuesday. They're also deciding a wide range of local offices and issues, including the fate of a proposed slots parlor at Arundel Mills mall.
Counting all the ballots will take hours, possibly days if a contest is very close. Here are early clues to watch for as trends and outcomes of the 2010 election develop.
The Eastern Shore
Eastern Shore voters could well determine freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil's future. Two years ago, the Shore Democrat carried his home base by 25,000 votes over state Sen. Andy Harris. That was enough to defeat the veteran lawmaker from Baltimore County, who took the district's Western Shore counties by fewer than 20,000 votes. If Harris can cut Kratovil's margin on the Eastern Shore in half this time, it should be enough to flip the 1st District back into Republican hands.
Kratovil is the most endangered incumbent in the state's congressional delegation, almost certainly the only one. If he manages to hang on, it would be a rare exception on what is expected to be a huge day for Republican candidates nationwide.
Much has been made of heightened Republican excitement this election year, but it remains to be seen how closely Maryland follows the national trend.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he's seeing more passion from Republicans than he did during his races in 2002 and 2006. As he made that point to reporters at an event for veterans Sunday afternoon, supporter Sherri Minkin interrupted and sternly told the governor: "You better win."
Ehrlich hugged her and said, "We didn't have that level of enthusiasm before. … We didn't have the threats. I love the threats."
Gov. Martin O'Malley has acknowledged that his supporters aren't as pumped up, but in a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage, they don't need to be as excited to deliver wins for their candidates.
Laurel neighborhoods and Arundel slots
Anne Arundel County voters are considering a ballot question that will determine whether the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. can develop a billion-dollar slots emporium and entertainment complex at Arundel Mills mall. The Maryland Jockey Club owns Laurel Park Race Course and has financed the opposition to the Cordish plan, in hopes of eventually steering slots to the track.
The county has been evenly split on Question A in recent polling, but the same surveys have shown strong support for the mall plan in the area around Laurel Park. If the referendum passes, it would allow the casino to be built near the mall.
If the question fails, the path for county slots will be less clear, but the results from around the racetrack could have ramifications well beyond election day.
Big margins in Laurel in favor of the casino at the mall could offer Cordish ammunition in a continuing battle against the Jockey Club. If the referendum fails, Cordish could present the Laurel results as evidence that the Jockey Club would face the same flood of NIMBYism that has come from neighborhoods near the mall.
In that case, Cordish might try to convince state officials not to reopen bidding for the county's only slots license and allow the Jockey Club to compete. This could buy Cordish time to find an alternative location, or figure out how to make the mall location work.
Baltimore County's northwestern suburbs
Republican Baltimore County executive candidate Kenneth C. Holt, of Kingsville, is widely seen as an underdog in his race against four-term Democratic Councilman Kevin Kamenetz of Owings Mills.
Kamenetz is better known, has raised about five times as much money, and his party holds a more than two-to-one advantage in voter registration.
If Holt is to have a chance in the race to fill the open seat, he'll have to hope that voters in Kamenetz's stronghold in the suburban western and northwestern districts of the county show up in smaller numbers than usual, and that those in the more conservative southeastern, southwestern and rural northern sections turn out in large numbers.
Holt is counting on a boost from the candidacy of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — who grew up in Arbutus — but many also argue that while Ehrlich is popular in the county, he doesn't have coattails. In his successful 2002 campaign, Ehrlich defeated Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by 23 percentage points in the county, but Democrat James T. Smith Jr., who is now term-limited, cruised to victory as county executive.
Democrats and Republicans are warning of political dirty tricks aimed at confusing voters. Traditional misdirection ruses have involved partisan volunteers passing out sample ballots that suggest their candidate has been endorsed by popular politicians who have, in fact, not endorsed those candidates.
Also look out for bullying at polling locations. One commonly circulated, and inaccurate, rumor is that parking ticket fines will be collected at the polls. The idea is to scare poor — or irresponsible — voters into staying home.
Maryland is home a higher percentage of African-American voters than any state outside the Deep South and both gubernatorial candidates have courted their votes in ways small and large. The two participated in a radio debate at WOLB's studios.
Ehrlich often mentions O'Malley's "zero-tolerance" policing policy as Baltimore's mayor, which at its high point in 2005 led to 108,000 arrests in a city of roughly 600,000. But black voters seem ready to forgive O'Malley for that strategy. A Sun poll showed they overwhelmingly back the governor.
O'Malley hasn't taken black support for granted this year and brought in President Barack Obama for a well-attended pep rally in Prince George's County. In addition, he endorsed former political foe Patricia C. Jessamy in Baltimore's closely watched state's attorney primary, a move widely seen as an attempt to court black women, who traditionally vote in great numbers.
There are few if any competitive local races in Maryland's two majority African-American jurisdictions: Balitmore City and Prince George's County. That means statewide candidates are on their own to generate enthusiasm. Healthy turnout in those places would be a bad sign for Ehrlich.
Early voting results
Nearly 220,000 Marylanders — 6.3 percent of eligible voters — have already cast their ballots, and the release of those results Tuesday night, expected just after polls close at 8 p.m., will offer an early clue as to how the races are shaping up.
The early voting period spanned six days, ending Thursday. Proportionally, more Democrats than Republicans used it, though the candidates chosen by those voters remains unknown.
The state's early voting system debuted in September for the primaries. It contributed to a vote-count pileup on primary night. Some of the largest jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Prince George's County, were slow to report results in hotly contested races. And the state Board of Elections was overwhelmed with vote tallies from that day and early votes that were counted at about the same time.
Ross Goldstein, deputy elections administrator, says he is hopeful the results will flow in more smoothly this time. State regulations allow the 23 counties and city to begin counting early votes as early as 2 p.m. Goldstein says the local election boards have told him they plan to do that.
Goldstein said he has stressed to the local boards the importance of keeping the results secret. Poll workers are to roll up the results printout as it emerges and have to sign confidentiality agreements, Goldstein said. "It really can be done in a way that nobody sees the results," he said.
The balance of the state legislature
In a year shaping up to be friendly to Republicans nationally, Maryland's minority party has been hoping for gains in the General Assembly.
All 188 General Assembly seats were up for election this year, though many contests were settled in the primaries. Republicans could come closer than ever to their elusive goal of being able to filibuster in the Senate. To do so, they would need to keep the 14 seats they now hold, plus gain an additional five — a scenario many political observers call unlikely.
But some Senate seats are in play, including the Anne Arundel County district of Democratic Sen. John Astle. He is being challenged by Republican Ron Elfenbein. Seats held by Republicans are in the mix, including a contest for the Eastern Shore seat being vacated by former Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus. Democratic Del. Jim Mathias and Republican Michael James are among the contenders. In Frederick County, Republican Sen. Alex X. Mooney is in a tough bout with Democrat Ronald N. Young. If both of those seats go to Democrats, it will be a long night for Republicans.
In the 141-seat House of Delegates, minority leader Anthony J. O'Donnell predicted the Republicans could best their modern-era high of 43 delegates, when Ehrlich was governor. There are 37 now.
Waiting in the wings
The close of the 2010 gubernatorial race inevitably means that the 2014 race begins.
There's nothing like being with a winner on election night to show voters that you, too, could be a winner. Watch for the rising stars of both parties to choose their celebrations, and messages, wisely.
Possible Democratic contenders next time around include Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler — both of whom will make appearances at O'Malley's election night watch party in Baltimore.
Gansler said he will thank poll workers, Democrats and Republicans alike, in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and then hit O'Malley's party, and probably one in Frederick, before ending the night in Montgomery County. Brown will greet voters at polls in Southern Maryland and Prince George's and Mountgomery counties before attending the election night party in Baltimore.
Smith, the Baltimore County executive, and Ken Ulman, the Howard County executive favored for re-election, will both be keeping a high profile.
Kendel Ehrlich, who encouraged her husband's return bid, will be at Ehrlich's side at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. But Republican leaders have said the public defender-turned-radio host could be a candidate for office herself. Perhaps she will make a speech that hints at her plans.
Another Republican to watch is tea party favorite Brian Murphy, who challenged Ehrlich in the primary. Since then, Ehrlich has embraced Murphy as "the future of the party." An aide to Murphy did not return a call Monday night.
Baltimore Sun reporters Paul West, Nicole Fuller and Arthur Hirsch contributed to this article.