- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans and Democrats will choose candidates for 188 legislative seats in the Sept. 12 primary and, while most incumbents seeking re-election are expected to win, heated races are scattered across Maryland in both parties.

The big battles generally will be where a position is open because an incumbent is retiring or seeking higher office. Leaders of both parties also are working to elect the strongest slate of candidates in such battleground regions as suburban and rural areas where neither party is dominant.

But for the most part, the party primaries are just a warm-up for the Nov. 7 general election, in which Republicans hope to build on their gains in recent elections and cut into the Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.

Unlike most states, which stagger terms of legislators, Maryland elects all 47 senators and 141 delegates every four years. The elections occur in the same year that voters elect a governor and other statewide officials, members of Congress and dozens of county officials.

The makeup of the General Assembly is 43 Republicans and 98 Democrats in the House, and 14 Republicans and 33 Democrats in the Senate.

Republicans reached a low point in 1958, when voters elected just three party senators and seven delegates in a legislature that then had 152 members. Since then, the party has struggled its way toward more respectable numbers.

For this election, Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane set an ambitious goal of knocking off five Democratic senators and 14 Democrats in the House.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said members think they will win seats, but “it’s a matter of where and how many.”

“We’ve been very successful in recruiting really qualified candidates,” she said.

The prime targets for Republicans are Democrats in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, in districts that are more moderate than the Democratic strongholds in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the city of Baltimore.

David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said Republican hopes for big gains will fail because of widespread discord among party members statewide.

“With [Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] came great expectations that have just not been realized,” he said.

First-term legislators who rode Mr. Ehrlich’s coattails to victory four years ago will be vulnerable, Mr. Paulson said.

“I believe we will be making some gains,” he said. “Will they be monumental gains? No.”

However, Miss Miller said Republicans will benefit from what she called a leftward movement in the state Democratic Party over the past four years.

Legislative leaders of both parties are as divided on the outlook for the general election as are the state party representatives.

Republicans think they have a shot at several vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the Senate, and hope to pick up a seat in a centrist-to-conservative district in Anne Arundel County left vacant with the retirement of Democrat Philip C. Jimeno.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat, said the Senate results in close races may depend on whether the party does better in the gubernatorial election than it did four years ago when Mr. Ehrlich defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

“I think this time [Baltimore Mayor] Martin O’Malley’s going to run a hundredfold-better campaign than Kathleen Kennedy Townsend,” he said. “I think his presence at the top of the ticket is going to help down-ballot races.”

While some Republicans are a little less enthusiastic about chances in the House, Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican, said gains of 10 to 20 seats in the House are possible.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, doesn’t see much change either way, though he thinks Democrats have a chance to gain a seat or two. “In the end, it may be a wash,” he said.

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