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Voter shift in Baltimore County?

The day of the Yellow Dog Democrat (who’d vote for a yellow dog if the dog was a Democrat) continues to fade. The same may be true of the GOP’s canine counterpart if there is one. Party loyalty is out along with newspapers.

In a local test, the 2010 election may show if Baltimore County is caught in a similar shedding of party loyalty: a two-to-four-year cycle that drives unhappy voters back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.

Whatever the conclusion, the swings won’t happen without a struggle on both sides. As always, political careers will be on the line along with party strength.

Outgoing County Executive Jim Smith will be looking for a new life in politics. He’s apparently running for the state Senate.

Gov. Martin O’Malley will try to win a second term, hoping he can do as well or better in the county than he did in 2006. A handful of county council seats, several races for the House of Delegates and the election of a new county executive will put many campaign workers on the street.

Former governor Robert Ehrlich may try for a comeback.

Republicans, desperate for wins, say O’Malley’s 2007 tax increase – bumping the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent – might be enough to scuttle his ship.

A rising tide for Republicans?

“Things could easily break our way,” says the GOP’s Chris Cavey, chairman of the party’s central committee in Baltimore County and a candidate for state party chair. He’s been to a few angry-taxpayer tea parties and town meetings, and the mood is not a happy one.

“There’s a gigantic percentage of disgruntled Democrats. They’re upset about what they bought [with Gov. O’Malley and President Barack Obama.] “I think it’s buyer’s remorse,” he says.

The Democratic Party’s central committee chair in Baltimore County, Brian Bailey, says his party will run well on what he says is a record of good crisis management by County Executive Smith.

Bailey says he’s not concerned about a re-match with Ehrlich.

“If Bob Ehrlich likes losing,” Bailey says, “he should run again.” Bailey lives in Arbutus, where Ehrlich was born and where drivers pass a huge “Bring Back Ehrlich” sign.

Cavey says Bailey should be careful about what he wishes for. The tide has turned, he says, and races that were competitive four years ago could easily go Republican this time.

Bailey insists his party’s prospects are undiminished — maybe even improved — because voter registration is running strongly in favor of the Democrats, who increased their lead with 37,000 new sign-ups while Republicans gained 10,000.

But Cavey believes the X-factor are unhappy Democrats and Independents, who, he predicts, will move toward Republicans. These voters, many of them Democrats who favored President Ronald Reagan, appear to be back in play for the GOP at this point.

Democrats line up to run

If the candidate-challenged Republicans have a great opportunity to regain status in Maryland politics, the prospects apparently haven’t been compelling to potential candidates for county executive. Cavey says there’s no obvious frontrunner.

The Democratic leaders are veteran County Councilmen Kevin Kamenetz, a lawyer, and Joseph Bartenfelder, a farmer. A mini-buzz, unconfirmed, had former county executive Don Hutchinson mulling a race as well.

Much attention will be focused on the county’s seventh legislative district where County Executive Smith apparently hopes to continue in public office. The district spills over into Harford County’s heavily Republican precincts, so he will need his deep bank account to make sure these voters know of his fiscal successes.

The Senate seat will be open because incumbent Andy Harris says he will run again for Congress in the First District, where Frank Kratovil defeated him in 2008.

With the help of Jim Smith’s organization, O’Malley turned voters away from Ehrlich in Ehrlich’s Baltimore County base in 2006. The party’s central committee chief, Bailey, says the governor will hang onto these converts.

Voters will give the governor credit for making tough decisions during the economic downturn, he said. But far tougher decisions will come soon – when a billion dollars or more in program cuts are made – so the real test of voter loyalty is yet to come.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.