June 29, 2010

Dems hope to capture open GOP Senate seat on the Lower Shore

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By Tony Russo
For MarylandReporter.com

BERLIN, MD. — Maryland Senate candidate Michael James held a steamy fundraiser last week at the Atlantic Hotel featuring former first lady Kendel Ehrlich. James is running for the District 38 seat, a traditionally Republican stronghold thrown into play upon Lowell Stoltzfus’ retirement after 18 years of service.

Democrat Del. Jim Mathias, the former Ocean City mayor who is James’ expected rival for the seat, had his own fundraiser three nights later at Seacrets, an Ocean City landmark as prominent for its liberal atmosphere as the old Atlantic Hotel is for its conservative tone.

The candidates weren’t laying out platforms and the crowds needed no convincing. James and Mathias were revving their engines at the pumps, winding their supporters up for what is one of the mid-term election’s closest and tactically significant statewide races.

In the broadest terms, the candidates are mostly separated by party affiliation. Both are anti-tax, pro small-business fiscal conservatives and lean on those stances above all others.

For James, the objective is to link Mathias to the liberal Democratic establishment while Mathias highlights his record of breaking with the party on taxes and spending in his votes in the House of Delegates.

Running on resumes

Both candidates are essentially running on their resumes, appealing to the electorate’s sense of ideals rather than their interest in specific political issues.

The approaches mirror those used when the two last ran against one another for delegate in 2006 for one of the two seats in district 38B. Mathias edged James by two percent —1,113 votes. But that was four years ago, before the slots legislation soured some of the area electorate and before the already conservative-leaning Lower Eastern Shore had ever heard of the Tea Party movement.

In a year when the Republicans are working to gain enough Senate seats to sustain a filibuster — they need to add five more to the 14 they already have — this is one traditionally Republican seat that might be in danger. “We need to elect five new senators and we need to hold the one on the Shore,” Kendel Ehrlich told a statewide meeting of Republican women last week.

According to Professor Adam Hoffman, director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (P.A.C.E.) at Salisbury University, the competitiveness of the seat, given the balance of power at stake, makes winning this election critical for both parties.

Mirrors congressional race

“This is almost a mini Kratovil-Harris race in an area where partisan affiliation is less important,” he said.

James and Mathias are both aware of this. Both parties and party leaders talk in terms of big picture strategy, but District 38 will likely be won or lost like many an election — the candidate who shakes the most hands will take the day.

James has support from the party hierarchy. In addition to Kendel Ehrlich’s Atlantic Hotel appearance he’s had two fundraisers this month featuring Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman and a commitment from Minority Whip Nancy Jacobs to stump as well.

“Michael James is working his butt off,” Jacobs told MarylandReporter.com. “I think Michael James can beat Mathias.”

Mathias faces a primary challenge from Crisfield resident Charles “Mickey” Lehrer. The run-off is only a formality — Lehrer has no organization or platform to speak of — but it does delay any official party support Mathias might get until the primary.

Without the party’s endorsement, Mathias is pretty much on his own for now – though he has the behind-the-scenes backing of Gov. Martin O’Malley and Senate President Mike Miller, who headlined an Annapolis fundraiser for him in January. But in a region where “Democrat” is sometimes a liability, the lack of big-name speakers in the rural areas could work to his advantage.

Hoffman said the Worcester and Wicomico electorate is unlikely to see the men much differently than during the last election, making Somerset County more important.

By those lights, the primary challenge could actually work to Mathias’ benefit.

“I’ve been building relationships … meeting with people all over the Eastern Shore,” Mathias said. In speeches he emphasizes his record of fiscal conservatism and breaks with the party leadership, most notably on the sales tax increase and the slots issue.

“I need to show the voters they can have confidence in me to represent their interests,” Mathias said. “The best person to convey that to them is me.”

Ehrlich supports James

James has the advantage of a primary-less run but more than that he has the support of ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

“Ehrlich is not a problem for [James],” he said. “He is still very popular in the district.”

Having never held elected office before, James said he’ll focus on his successes in business and healthcare — as general manager for the Carousel, one of Ocean City’s largest and most prominent hotels, and as member of Atlantic General Hospital’s board of directors.

“As a businessman I know what it’s like to lie awake at night and worry about your business,” he said.

James said he worried about mandates he believes will be attached to the recent federal healthcare bill and said his experience with both the hospital and private industry will make his an important voice on that issue in the legislature. James said working with conservative Democrats on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake could be another key.

“I have a track record as a negotiator who can work with people of all points of view,” he said. “It’s about finding common ground.”

Hoffman doubted James’ ability to have a voice in the Senate should he win even if the Republicans reach their magic 19 seats.

“He can have some degree of power,” Hoffman said. “But this is one of the most centralized state Senates in the country.”

Hoffman cited the party’s acceptance of Mathias’ voting record as evidence they value the seat as much if not more than his individual votes and suggested the candidate a well as the district would be rewarded by a win.

“If [the Democrats] can hold and keep that seat, they’ll feed [Mathias] a lot of committee assignments,” he said.