Cover Story

Catch-23

With the economy sputtering, 23 Republican-held governorships are up for grabs next month. Many of those states are experiencing deep budget crises, leading to a tough choice between higher taxes or fewer services. That's a no-win situation for GOP incumbents, so Democrats may rack up big wins in November

Issue: "GOP: No room for error," Oct. 19, 2002

Any reporter approaching the 1800 block of Madison Avenue would reflexively double-check the itinerary. The crumbling, boarded-up rowhouses are a reminder that Baltimore's Madison Avenue is a far cry from New York's world-famous, upscale address. And even in Baltimore, the western reaches of Madison are a far cry from the bistros and museums that dot the same street further east, in the high-rent residential area known as Mount Vernon.

But there it is, in black and white: a block party at 1800 Madison Avenue. Bob Ehrlich, who hopes to be elected governor of Maryland in just under a month, is going to be stumping for votes here. One block to the south begins a long stretch of urban blight. One block to the north begins Bolton Hill, a historic district with a large gay population. No matter which way you turn, the area looks like a Democratic stronghold-and Bob Ehrlich is a Republican.

If this particular block party looks like an unlikely stop, it merely serves as a symbol for Mr. Ehrlich's entire campaign. Maryland, after all, is practically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Liberal soccer moms in the Washington suburbs and blue-collar workers in Baltimore have ganged up on the GOP for some 40 years, electing a steady stream of Democrats at every level of government. Indeed, the last Republican to win the governorship was Spiro Agnew in 1966.

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As recently as a month ago, few observers thought this year would be any different. The Democratic lieutenant governor was widely expected to move up to the top spot with little resistance, thanks to both her politics and her pedigree: As the eldest child of Robert Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend seemed destined for greatness in a Democratic state like Maryland. Thanks to her name and her national connections, Ms. Townsend has raised nearly $7 million for her race, a state record. In early polls, she led Mr. Ehrlich, a congressman from the Baltimore suburbs, by more than 15 points.

Then, about two months ago, Ms. Townsend went into free fall, and polls now show the two candidates in a statistical dead heat, at about 44 percent each. Sensing an opportunity, national Republicans have moved the Maryland race to the top of their wish list. The Republican Governors Association has pledged part of its $25 million war chest to the Ehrlich campaign, and President Bush on Oct. 2 raised nearly $2 million for the GOP hopeful in a 90-minute appearance in Baltimore.

Ms. Townsend, to be sure, bears much of the blame for her decline. A weak campaigner, she makes frequent verbal gaffes and seems wary of the news media. In searching for a running mate, she passed over several high-profile black candidates, potentially alienating the state's 30 percent minority population. Federal investigations into several programs she administered as lieutenant governor have further tarnished her image.

Still, Democrats in Maryland have managed to win elections with far more baggage than Ms. Townsend brings into the race. More than anything else, she may simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After years of robust budget surpluses, Maryland suddenly faces a deficit of $1.7 billion. In the state capital of Annapolis, the slowing economy caught free-spending lawmakers off balance, forcing unpopular proposals for higher taxes and cutbacks in spending. Mr. Ehrlich was in Washington dealing with national issues, so voters tend not to blame him for the budget mess. Ms. Townsend, however, has nowhere to hide: The swift economic reversal happened on the watch that she shared with her boss, Gov. Parris Glendening.

Ms. Townsend isn't the only Democrat whose gubernatorial dreams could be shattered by economic realities. In New Hampshire, where Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is leaving office with a $40 million budget shortfall, Republicans are poised to capture the governor's mansion with a businessman who promises to run a tighter ship. In Oregon, lawmakers mortgaged the state's massive tobacco settlement to cover a $482 million deficit. Democrats have held the state's top job for the past 12 years, but a voter backlash could elect Kevin Mannix, a pro-life, anti-tax Republican.

Even in Hawaii, which ranks with Massachusetts and Maryland as one of the most solidly Democratic states in the country, Democrats are running scared after running up a $300 million deficit. Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano is retiring, but even one of the Democrats vying to succeed him admitted the state was on the verge of bankruptcy. Republican Linda Lingle, a former Maui mayor, has a healthy lead in the polls. She would be the state's first Republican governor since 1962.

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