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May 22, 2006

Cleaning Up or Cleaning Out?

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

How can it be that the two political parties in Maryland could see the upcoming election in such different ways? Republicans see a thrown-together mess, a scramble to allow access to early voting in mostly Democratic precincts, almost guaranteed to facilitate voter fraud on a massive scale.

Democrats see this as an exercise in democracy on a historic scale, placing voting machines in densely populated urban areas, and throwing open the chance to cast a vote to folks who traditionally don't take advantage of the chance to participate in the electoral process.

The stakes in this debate couldn't be higher. That might explain the level of rhetoric being thrown around. For the Democrats, pumping up the number of likely Democrat votes in the large urban areas offsets Gov. Robert Ehrlich's strength in rural Maryland. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley looks almost unbeatable if the Democrats can pad the numbers with an unusually high urban voter turnout.

For the GOP, the statewide stakes are even higher. Sure, the re-election of Governor Ehrlich is job number one. It isn't just because Bob Ehrlich is a great guy (he is), but his re-election is one of the keys to bringing balance to state politics.

A re-elected Governor Ehrlich would mean that Republicans turned out in historic numbers, and that moderate to conservative Democrats felt more comfortable with his moderate view than the distinctly liberal policies of Mayor O'Malley. (I'd long ago given up on Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, as have a lot of Democrats.)

If Bob Ehrlich is re-elected, that means that GOP turnout was strong, and that means stronger GOP races up and down the ballot. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's chances of defeating a Democrat for Paul Sarbanes U.S. Senate seat raises dramatically, as does the chance for an increase in both Republican delegates and senators.

National polling suggests that President Bush's drooping popularity will impact the GOP's ability to hold congressional majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. It isn't just the president's popularity (or lack thereof) affecting the Congress.

Stumbles by congressional leadership, from the stupid idea of a $100 per person gas rebate to the lobbying scandal involving Jack Abramoff, are adding to a lack of confidence in current House and Senate leadership.

Now might not be the time to pop the cork on the champagne bottle at the local Democratic Party headquarters, though. Just because President Bush is facing a lack of voter confidence does not mean that state and local offices will follow national preference trends, we've seen that time and again.

There are even a few twists to the national stories that might actually assist some Republican candidates, even though President Bush is suffering.

The immigration debate is a great example. The plan the president laid out fell far short of the expectations of every conservative, and even fell short of the expectations of most Americans.

President Bush, as a former border state governor, feels that we need to design a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants that are working and paying taxes. He also isn't in a big hurry to round up corporate executives who employ illegal immigrants, either intentionally or inadvertently.

He often speaks about the illegal manufacture of identity documents, and the difficulty of most employers face in trying to determine the citizenship status of a potential employee. Apparently, the president feels it would be very difficult to hold corporate officers accountable if the people they hire can produce documents that look and feel authentic.

The president also feels that "militarizing" the border would be a mistake. He has worked to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with Mexican President Vincente Fox, and views a strong, active military border presence as detrimental to an effective relationship with Mexico and South and Central American neighbors.

So, how does this help down ballot Republicans? Strong conservatives are already bailing on President Bush, and the rush to create distance with his immigration plan will soon start to look like the Washington Beltway during rush hour.

Conservative senators and representatives (including our own Rep. Roscoe Bartlett) are not shy about expressing disagreement with the White House, especially when that disagreement is confirmed by national polling data. That is clearly the case with this immigration debate.

Expect to see open expression of disagreement over the president's plan, and not just from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., CA) and Sen. Harry Reid (D., NV). Earlier this month, conservative pundit and former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan opened the floodgate by questioning President Bush's commitment to protecting the American people on a national radio talk show. He won't be the last conservative or Republican to do so.

Will this impact Maryland's state election in November? Probably not as much as the Democrats would like. Michael Steele has already placed distance between himself and the White House, and he'll continue to do so. It's actually not too hard for him; he is considerably more conservative than the president on several major social issues.

The Steele campaign has released a number of media alerts, and each one widens the policy gap between the aspiring senator and traditional GOP positions. They seem to be well disciplined, and everything they do appears to be carefully choreographed to highlight the candidate's considerable appeal.

As far as the governor's race, despite the state Democratic Party non-stop string of press releases, the impact of presidential popularity won't be a major factor. Even though Democrats enjoy a 2-1-voter registration majority, a large percentage of those voters are more traditional in their thinking. A good example is the strength Governor Ehrlich demonstrated in blue-collar precincts four years ago.

He will be trying to replicate that success, while dramatically increasing the turnout in traditional Republican strongholds like Carroll, Frederick, and Washington counties. He will communicate the economic success of Maryland under his watch, and he'll talk about historic increases in public education, job creation, environmental cleanup, infrastructure investment, minority business participation, and support to the disability community.

Democrats will have to fight him on their turf, not on the White House lawn. Since so much of his 4-year agenda reflects traditional Democrat priorities, he can legitimately steal some of their thunder. That won't really present too big a problem for Mayor O'Malley, though.

He will run a very traditional campaign, touting traditional liberal Democrat themes. The gauntlet has already been thrown down. He'll attack Governor Ehrlich on the failure of slots (remember Speaker Mike "No Slots, No Way" Busch); firing civil servants (most probably should have been); insufficient spending on education (never enough); favoring corporate interests over the "working man" (forgetting that the working man needs that corporate job to earn a living); insufficient progress on juvenile justice reform (easy to say, hard to do); a lack of universal health care (medical socialism); and a tepid commitment to the environment (also never enough).

What he can't do is spend too much time trying to cast Bob Ehrlich as George Bush. Maryland voters will be swayed by pocketbook and backyard issues. If the national economy is still strong, if gas prices start to drop, and Governor Ehrlich can communicate his core values and significant accomplishments, the Democrats won't have to worry about measuring the curtain rods in Government House. Instead, they'll need to be worried about cleaning out some more desks in the State House chamber.

Is it any wonder why both sides see this whole election debate so differently?

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