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Too Close for Kerry's Comfort

What's Going on In Maryland? Bush is surprisingly close in the Old Line State.

12:00 AM, Oct 8, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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IN THE LAST FOUR presidential elections Republican candidates have wasted little time and money campaigning for Maryland's 10 electoral votes. The state hasn't gone in the Republican column since George H.W. Bush's 1988 landslide. Al Gore carried Maryland by 17 points in 2000.

So no doubt more than a few eyebrows were raised when two new polls came out that show George W. Bush inching surprisingly close to John Kerry in the Old Line State. Last week, a Survey USA poll had the two candidates tied at 48 percent. This week, Rasmussen gave Kerry just a three-point lead and moved Maryland into the toss-up category. Before the Republican convention, the same Rasmussen poll had Kerry comfortably ahead, 54 percent to 41 percent.

If Bush won Maryland, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, the race would be over for Kerry. This is highly unlikely, but there are a few factors that suggest why Kerry is losing ground in two polls.

First is the influence of Maryland's highest elected official, Governor Bob Ehrlich. Elected in 2002, Ehrlich, who connected with Marylanders so well he beat a Kennedy in the race, is Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966. A native son of Baltimore, Ehrlich's hometown pride, good looks, easy manner, and charm play well with voters. "With him in office, Republicans are no longer boogeymen," says Maryland political commentator Richard Vatz.

Ehrlich's formation of a task force to address rising malpractice costs has also tapped into incipient public anger at higher doctors' fees and the loss of medical professionals in Maryland because of high insurance costs. Malpractice premiums are slated to increase by 33 percent next year because of large lawsuit losses. This comes after a 28 percent increase last year.

Former trial lawyer John Edwards, who has lined his pockets with money from medical malpractice suits, may be a casualty of this trend with at least a few voters, Vatz says.

Second, Michael Barone has written about a potential "Metroliner Effect." In three Gore 2000 states--Maryland, New York, and New Jersey--the Democratic margin is down by at least 10 points. These states are all along the Amtrak route from New York to Washington that was heavily impacted by September 11. The president is likely capitalizing on his security advantage in this corridor.

When Bush arrived in New York for the convention, a group of firefighters in Queens greeted him. The poll numbers indicate that after the convention, Bush may be generating the surge of support from blue-collar workers (of which Maryland has plenty in Baltimore factories) that his campaign had been hoping for.

Third, though there are 22 counties that vote Republican in Maryland, Baltimore City and the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties are the three population centers that handily carry the state for Democrats. These are also areas with significant numbers of high-income voters, where Kerry's proposal to raise taxes on earners making over $200,000 a year is probably a big loser, especially after Bush made good on his tax cut.

Fourth, Maryland Democrats at the state level may be turning voters off to the party's national ticket. There has been substantial animosity between popular former governor, now the comptroller, William Donald Schaefer and Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley over a host of issues, but in particular, Schaefer's support of another candidate for mayor in 2006 over O'Malley.

Michael E. Busch, speaker of the House of Delegates, and Maryland Senate president Mike Miller have also been sparring over whether or not to bring slot machines to Maryland. It all sounds petty, but gets heavy coverage on local news and talk radio programs.

"The Democratic party is in a world of trouble in Maryland," Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun on Sunday.

Maybe they are. Either way, Maryland will almost undoubtedly go for Kerry. But it's not a good sign for Democrats that they could have to spend time and money trying to hold down a blue state.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.