Dems say the gains may be theirs

Party leaders say GOP plans to add legislative seats could fall backwards, lead to bigger majorities

Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

This story has been corrected from a previous version. For the full correction text, click here.

ANNAPOLIS — Democrats are increasingly optimistic that their sizable margins in the House of Delegates and the Senate are secure and may even increase after next month’s election.

Evidence is mounting that the Republican effort — led by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — to pick up 14 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate is going to be next to impossible, Democrats say. Republicans remain optimistic publicly, but privately there are some in GOP circles who are skeptical about reaching that goal.

‘‘Picking up 14 House seats and five Senate seats was always a stretch,” said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich’s communications director. ‘‘But it’s still a realistic goal.”

Democratic leaders cite the toxic atmosphere for Republicans nationally, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s superior strength as a candidate compared to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend four years ago and the party’s twin efforts of protecting its incumbents while focusing on vulnerable GOP incumbents as harbingers of good things for Democrats come Nov. 7.

‘‘The current climate out there nationally seems to be benefiting Democrats locally,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis. ‘‘There are many Republicans out there who are fearful that their legislative district has gone from ‘safe’ to ‘in play.’ We know because we’ve been hearing from them.”

Democrats are now talking about making gains in the General Assembly — particularly in the House of Delegates. They admit that there is a handful of Democratic incumbents in tough battles — Dels. Sue Kullen (D-Dist. 27B) of Port Republic, John P. Donoghue (D-Dist. 2C) of Hagerstown, Galen R. Claggett (D-Dist. 3A) of Frederick, James Mathias (D-Dist. 38B) of Ocean City and Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman H. Conway (D-Dist. 38B) of Salisbury — but they are confident that they all will win.

The Democratic slate committee is also focusing on several seats where it believes the Republicans are vulnerable.

Even though there is a concerted GOP effort to defeat Busch in his Annapolis district, the speaker and other Democrats say they can pick up the District 30 House seat vacated by Republican Herbert H. McMillan, who is running for the Senate. The northern Anne Arundel seat held by Del. Terry R. Gilleland Jr. (R-Dist. 32) of Linthicum Heights is considered winnable for Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Pam Beidle, a Democrat from Linthicum.

Three Republicans who were appointed to their House seats — Dels. W. Daniel Mayer (R-Dist. 28) of Newburg, Sheryl Davis-Kohl (R-Dist. 34A) of Abingdon and Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (R-Dist. 8) of Parkville — are considered vulnerable, as is Del. Patrick N. Hogan (R-Dist. 3A) of Frederick. Democrats also have high hopes of picking up the open seat in Baltimore County’s District 42 vacated by Republican John G. Trueschler, who is retiring.

The Democratic slate committee is not ruling out defeating House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby as evidenced by its direct mail campaign in his Southern Maryland district. O’Donnell dismissed the ‘‘Taxman Tony O’Donnell” piece, which shows a toilet with money being flushed, as ‘‘laughable” and ticked off a list of taxes pushed by Busch that he opposed.

‘‘The Republicans have taken a calculated risk by spending money and going after Democrats rather than defending their own seats,” said Busch, who is heading the Democratic efforts to protect and expand the Democrats’ 98-to 43 majority in the House. ‘‘We believe there are 10 to 12 incumbent Republicans who are vulnerable.”

O’Donnell and Del. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown — two leaders of the Republican House Slate Committee — both insist that picking up 14 House seats can be accomplished.

‘‘I think it is a reasonable goal,” O’Donnell said without saying the word ‘‘fourteen.” Shank, too, never said the word, but said it was ‘‘entirely possible” to hit their goal. ‘‘Are there areas where we have to play defense as well as offense, absolutely,” Shank said, adding that the GOP incumbents ‘‘will be fine.”

The Republican targeting of Democrats has been nicknamed the ‘‘14 and 5 Project.” Ehrlich and GOP leaders are using that mantra to represent their goal of eating into the Democratic majorities. Democrats outnumber Republicans 32-15 in the Senate, thanks to Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr.’s decision to switch from Democrat to Republican after losing his primary, but Giannetti is considered a long shot to defeat former delegate James C. Rosapepe, who hammered Giannetti in the primary.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. predicted that — at worst — next month’s election will be a wash for both parties. Democrats face steep odds of keeping the seat of retiring Democrat Philip C. Jimeno’s Senate seat in Anne Arundel County, but they are confident that Howard County Executive James N. Robey will defeat Sen. Sandra Schrader (R-Dist. 13) of Columbia.

Incumbent Democrats Roy P. Dyson (D-Dist. 29) of Great Mills, John C. Astle (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis, Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Dist. 8) of Baltimore and James Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson will fend off their formidable GOP challengers, Miller predicted.

He said the reason he believes that incumbent Democrats in conservative-leaning areas will be re-elected is because O’Malley is a much stronger candidate than Townsend in 2002. For instance, Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach lost two incumbents from rural suburban districts — Walter Baker from the Upper Eastern Shore and Robert R. Neall from Anne Arundel County — because of Townsend’s drag on the Democrats.

‘‘That’s not going to happen this time,” he said. ‘‘The numbers are a lot better.”

State GOP Chairman John M. Kane — who personified the effort to knock off Democrats by carrying around a binder at the end of Ehrlich’s first legislative session in 2003 with the words ‘‘Target List” emblazoned on the front — remains bullish on 14 and 5.

Ehrlich took up the cause as recently as this summer when he wove into his stump speeches that his re-election would not be a total success unless he was able to carry some Republicans into office, too.

Kane said Thursday that it would be a victory for the Republicans if they netted one new GOP seat, but he ‘‘remains committed to 14 and 5.”

‘‘When we say 5 and 14, we’re actually going after 7 and about 20,” Kane said noting the number of Senate and House seats he sees as winnable. ‘‘Five and 14 would be the net.”

Kane added that the Democrats may have polls showing their candidates doing well, but the GOP will make up the difference with its get-out-the-vote efforts.

‘‘Our ground game is far superior,” he said, ‘‘and that’s what is going to push us over the top.”

Correction, Oct. 20, 2006:The original version of this story incorrectly said Del. Terry R. Gilleland Jr. (R-Dist. 32) of Linthicum Heights lost his primary. He won his primary. The story has been corrected. .