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Is Maryland growing even more blue politically? Democrats are showing gains in battleground counties.

Maryland’s political map is changing: The bluest counties are becoming bluer and the reddest counties are getting redder. But it is the shifts in “purple” counties that may prove the most consequential in local and statewide elections.

Battleground counties such as Anne Arundel, Frederick and Talbot have grown increasingly Democratic over the past dozen years in either voter registration, presidential candidate choices or both, according to state and county data. Meanwhile, previously Democratic-leaning counties such as Howard and Charles are becoming even bluer.

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The changes were reflected in the Nov. 3 presidential election — in which Frederick, Kent and Talbot counties flipped to Democratic after voting Republican in 2016.

The evolving landscape is caused largely by population shifts that are turning once-rural counties into extensions of Democratic-oriented suburbs.

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Democrats say the trend could aid their candidates in the 2022 elections for governor, U.S. Senate and local offices. Republicans discount its effect, pointing to GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, who won races in 2014 and 2018 by attracting significant numbers of Democratic votes.

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden — now president-elect — increased the Democratic nominee’s vote percentage from four years ago in every one of Maryland’s 23 counties except Somerset, where Republican President Donald Trump maintained his margin of victory. In Baltimore City, Biden got 87.2% compared with 84.6% for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In Anne Arundel, Biden became the first Democratic presidential contender in more than 50 years to top 50%. Howard County voters gave Biden 70.7%, the county’s highest-ever total for a Democrat in a presidential election, according to John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state in the administration of Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening.

Electors in Maryland, like those in all states, are scheduled to convene Monday to cast their Electoral College votes. Despite lobbying by Trump in some states, electors across the U.S. are expected to cast their votes to reflect their states’ election results.

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Overall in Maryland, Democrats maintain a better than 2-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans — a margin that has been increasing over the past 20 years.

About 20% of voters aren’t affiliated with either party. Willis said the number of unattached voters has been growing as people increasingly express dissatisfaction with partisan bickering in Washington.

2020 presidential election results in Maryland by precinct. | Source: Maryland Board of Elections. <a href="https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/elections/bs-md-pol-presidential-precincts-20201209-w63rg5k2sjasrpb5yaldhnyn2u-htmlstory.html" target="_blank" style="color:#779dcf;font-weight:bold;">See full analysis</a>.
2020 presidential election results in Maryland by precinct. | Source: Maryland Board of Elections. See full analysis. (Adam Marton/Capital News Service)

Willis, a University of Baltimore professor, said there are effectively two Marylands — Democratic and Republican — growing politically further apart. Republicans dominate the Western Maryland counties of Allegany, Garrett and Washington, as well as most of the Eastern Shore. Democrats control Baltimore City, the large Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and, increasingly, the more distant suburbs, such as Howard and Charles counties.

The divide is vast. Just a quarter of Baltimore City’s voters are registered Republicans. The reverse is true in Garrett County, where Republicans account for two-thirds of registered voters.

“The polarization is not new, but it’s hardening,” Willis said. “Once you get party domination, if a person wants to participate in local politics, they join the dominant party. Democrats don’t exist where they did 20 years ago — Allegany, Washington, Carroll, Cecil.”

Although the “two Marylands” model persists, Willis and others say the November election showed Democrats making inroads in competitive counties such as Frederick and Talbot, which had long backed Republicans for president, and increasing their advantages in suburban strongholds.

“The blue map is pushing the margins farther on each side of the state,” said Damian O’Doherty, a Baltimore-based corporate communications consultant.

In search of affordable housing, federal workers and others tied to Washington D.C. have moved farther from the city. Analysts say that has made counties such as Charles and Frederick feel politically closer to the nation’s capital and its heavily Democratic suburbs. The two are among Maryland’s fastest-growing counties, according to the Census Bureau.

In the last dozen years, Democrats have increased their percentage of registered voters in Frederick and Charles while the GOP’s percentage has tumbled, according to an analysis by Willis using state figures.

Frederick County, in particular, has markedly changed, losing farms, woods and gun clubs and gaining businesses, residential developments — and Democrats.

Frederick County “is becoming indiscernible from upper Germantown and upper Gaithersburg” along the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County, said O’Doherty, once a top aide to former Baltimore County executive Jim Smith, a Democrat.

The “urbanization and suburbanization” of such counties opens up new opportunities for Democratic candidates, O’Doherty said.

The trend is evident in Howard, where Republicans comprise about 23% of registered voters compared with about 32% 12 years ago, according to Willis. An influx of Democratic voters helped Calvin Ball defeat Republican incumbent Allan Kittleman for county executive in 2018.

“Howard County is so much more diverse than it was 30 years ago,” Willis said.

Democrat Steuart Pittman upset Republican County Executive Steve Schuh in the same year in Anne Arundel, where Republicans have seen their percentage of registered voters decline in each of the past four presidential elections.

“Elections tend to reflect registration,” Willis said. “If you see registration changing, that means something is going on.”

Republicans counter that Maryland politics can be favorable for the right GOP candidate.

“We’ve had two Republican governors in recent years,” said Republican Nic Kipke, the minority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, referring to Hogan and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was elected in 2002. “I think this has more to do with Maryland’s more moderate political climate than anything.”

Biden got 65.4% of the Maryland vote last month, topping the 60.3% netted by Clinton, who lost the national election to Trump in 2016.

The 2022 elections will include an open race for governor, since Hogan will have served the maximum of two four-year terms. Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen will be up for reelection that year.

By then, the configuration of congressional and state legislative districts will have been redrawn to reflect population changes in the 2020 census. Redistricting creates uncertainty, since lawmakers don’t know far in advance where all their potential voters are.

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Maryland’s presidential vote may not be a harbinger of future elections, especially if Trump’s name is not on the ballot, said Beth Levine, an aide to Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley for 16 years and a partner with O’Doherty at KO Public Affairs in Baltimore.

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“You have a big Republican population who did not like President Trump and the way he approached governing,” Levine said.

That subset of Maryland Republicans, she said, may have felt empowered by Hogan to not vote for Trump. Hogan said he declined to vote for the president in 2020, casting a symbolic write-in vote for the late President Ronald Reagan.

Levine acknowledged that some Maryland counties “are becoming more urban, and that tends to track Democratic.” While Hogan won twice, she said it’s still an “anomaly” for the GOP to win statewide because there are so many more Democratic voters than Republicans.

“You have to have a less-than-stellar Democrat” on the ballot, she said.

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