October 26, 2010

Analysis: Republicans fight to hold Senate seat on the Lower Shore

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By Tony Russo
For MarylandReporter.com

In an election where the Republican Party hopes to claim enough seats in the Maryland Senate to sustain a filibuster and force negotiations on bills requiring a two-thirds majority, not losing traditionally held seats is as important as gaining them.

That makes the District 38 race on the lower Eastern Shore between Republican hotel executive Michael James and Democratic Del. Jim Mathias such a critical one to both parties.

James and Mathias opposed one another for the District 38B Delegate seat in the 2006 election and Mathias edged James out by 1,113 votes, taking advantage of the Democratic-leaning Wicomico County. Both are vying for the state Senate seat opened by the retirement of Lowell Stoltzfus, the Republican senator who held the post for 18 years.

Assuming those who voted Democratic in this year’s primaries back him in next week’s election, Mathias has an opening margin of a little more than 100 votes of party loyalists, a number that could make the difference as the two battle for support of voters who didn’t or couldn’t vote in the primary.

In this year’s primary 9,199 Democrats voted in the Senate race compared to 9,068 Republicans. In the 2006 primary, the turnout percentage was in the low 30s for Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester Counties, numbers well below this year’s projections.

Tea Party rising

But since 2006, the normally conservative Lower Shore has become a Tea Party stronghold of the kind which overthrew Tom Carper in favor of Christine O’Donnell in neighboring Delaware.

The fight between Mathias and James will likely be determined in the place where anger meets self-interest in the voter psyche.

As the election nears, Mathias has made a hard run to the right, picking up the endorsements of most of the local newspapers. All of them cited particular victories Mathias helped business gain over his last four years as a delegate. Most importantly, however, Mathias might be able to count dividends from past favors to important voting blocs.

The home owners association of Ocean Pines, one of the largest voting districts in Worcester County, appealed to Mathias to intercede for them about the apportioning of local slots machine revenue from the nearby Ocean Downs casino. Mathias’ success in making the change — the association will now get 10% of slots profits originally promised Worcester County — drove home the point that having an ally in Annapolis who has some influence with the Democratic establishment outweighs party-line voting.

All over the county similar stories are emerging of small business owners who received, if not the help they requested, Mathias’ best attempt at providing it. It’s the same reason incumbent Del. Norm Conway in 38B, long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is expected to have an easy victory while the rest of Democrats in the conservative district fight for their political lives.

But even with Mathias’ late run right and the increasing acceptance that Gov. Martin O’Malley will win re-election, James is making his own waves and inroads, appealing to or at least not alienating centrist voters while actively cultivating his base.

Many Eastern Shore Republicans have embraced the Tea Party anti-government movement. But James has kept a cooler distance, preferring to temper his anti-tax stand with ideas for growing revenue that go beyond the “cut taxes and businesses will return” mantra. While some candidates express anger and outrage, James exudes concern and confidence in his ability to affect a culture change.

In debates as well as stump speeches, James has promoted himself as a conservative voice who can work with the Democratic leadership to grow revenue while cutting taxes. He’s also had an amount of success in these venues reminding voters that Mathias initially supported an income tax increase before he voted against it.

What’s more, James distinguished himself by providing concrete ideas to promote economic growth beyond the traditional staples of agribusiness and tourism. This is something the high number of off-season unemployed and the businesses they cannot afford to frequent from November to May have been clamoring for.

Ideas beyond merely cutting taxes have made James the safest vote for those who are disenchanted but fear electing radicals who will likely be marginalized in Annapolis. If the Republicans hold this seat and gain one or two other toss-up districts, James could avoid being marginalized.

But some local residents also believe Democratic leaders might be willing to establish Mathias in an important post in order to keep a red seat blue.

Tony Russo has been closely covering the District 38 race for the Bayside Gazette near Ocean City.