Chesapeake Primary Brings Congressional Sea Change

By VEENA TREHAN, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON (Feb. 13, 2008) - Presidential candidates' national call for change resonated with Maryland voters, experts said, as the state's electorate backed the surging campaign of Sen. Barack Obama and turned out two longtime incumbent congressmen, one in each party, in an icy night of extended voting.

Topping the changes was Democratic activist Donna Edwards' victory over eight-term Democratic Rep. Al Wynn, D-Mitchellville, in the 4th Congressional District, which includes parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Following close behind was state Sen. Andy Harris' ouster of Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, in the state's 1st District.

Edwards, a progressive, won the rematch of her 2006 primary by 59 to 37 percent of the vote. She came within 3 percent of Wynn in 2006 and the closeness of that race lent legitimacy to her quest and brought in money and endorsements.

Harris won the primary against moderate nine-term congressman Gilchrest, 43 to 32 percent with state Sen. E.J. Pipkin receiving 20 percent of the vote.

In the presidential sweepstakes, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain scored wins by 23 and 26 percent, respectively, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting.

"We can read it as an election for change," said Michael Caine, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "It appears the Democratic and Republican electorate is restless."

"The national message is affecting local races," said Caine.

John T. Willis, a professor of government and politics at the University of Baltimore, pointed out the last time two Maryland congressional incumbents were ousted was in 1970. He said Democratic turnout, which was high, is indicative of a national mood.

"It's caused by something bigger than a congressional district or county issue," said Willis. "It's being run at the top and it's being impacted by what is going on in America."

Willis draws a parallel to that year, when the public's interest in politics and the Vietnam War was heightened. Paul Sarbanes and Parren Mitchell, Maryland's first black congressional representative, won election to Congress.

Yet in Harris' case, Republicans may have worsened their position by bouncing Gilchrest.

"The Republicans were risking a safe seat," said Caine. "Now a Democrat has a chance against Harris."

The turnout of Maryland Democrats was estimated at 47 percent of all registered Democratic voters. Not since 1964 did a higher percentage - 49 percent - show up at the polls, said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

"Especially on a day when we were hit with everything - snow, rain, sleet, icy roads, very cold temperatures - we're very proud of having 800,000 Democrats going to the polls."

Weather was so poor that the state extended voting deadlines until 9:30 p.m. to allow voters more time to get to the polls. Those appearing after 8 p.m. had to cast provisional ballots on paper.

Donna Duncan, a director at the Maryland State Board of Elections, said unofficial turnout overall has been estimated at 37.45 percent of all registered voters. That total excludes provisional ballots, absentee ballots and votes after the scheduled 8 p.m. shutdown of the polls.

That figure is the highest since the 1992 election when Bill Clinton won the presidency and Democrats assumed full control over both Houses of Congress.

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