Could Maryland Be the Dems' Stumbling Block?

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Senate Republican nominee Michael Steele talks with a reporter after voting at Kettering Middle School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Maybe it's just the Election Day jitters of a political class that has had too much caffeine and not enough sleep, but as the final hours tick down before polls start closing across the country, the biggest private worry among Democratic operatives is about their prospects in one of the bluest of blue states: Maryland. That's ironic in a year that has been so bad for Republicans almost everywhere else. But where most of the other key Senate races appear to be trending the Democrats' way, key officials say a last-minute surge by Maryland's Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele could be what stands in the way of their taking back the Senate.

Meanwhile, the race that Republicans are fretting about the most is going on just across the Potomac. In Virginia, the red state where Senator George Allen's reelection campaign was once expected to be little more than a test run for a 2008 presidential bid, Republicans are worried that the Republican-turned-Democrat former Navy Secretary Jim Webb is coming in for a very strong finish that could put the state into the Democratic column.

With so much at stake, early indications were that turnout will be heavier than the 40% or so that typically occurs in off-year elections. Officials at polling places across the country were reporting lines of voters, as more than 80 million Americans were expected to cast their ballots today. "Its heavy, very heavy," said Rita Yarman, the elections director in Knox County, Ohio. "It's that way all across the county." However, nearly one-third of voters nationwide are using new polling equipment, and glitches were being reported across the country, particularly in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois — all of which have closely watched races.

All 435 House seats are on the ballot, and officials from both parties at midday were privately predicting a Democratic pick-up of at least 20 seats and maybe more. Democrats need 15 seats to take control of the lower chamber; some Republicans were braced for a Democratic gain of twice that number. The Senate is a longer reach for Democrats, requiring them to pick up six seats, but that is no longer considered beyond their grasp.

While Republicans had initially hoped the Congressional races would follow the customary pattern in which local loyalties and personalities dominate, this has indeed turned out to be the relatively rare phenomenon of a nationalized midterm election. The last time it happened was when Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to a surprise victory in 1994. This year, Democrats have had the wind at their backs all year long. Though George Bush is not on the ballot, his unpopularity is a drag on Republican candidates who are. Voters also tell pollsters they're distinctly pessimistic about the direction of the country and deeply skeptical about the conduct of the war in Iraq. All these forces have boosted Democratic chances for a takeover.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been rocked by problems in their own ranks, first by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which resulted in the resignation of one lawmaker, the retirement of a second and lengthened the odds of reelection of several other previously safe members. More recently, the Mark Foley scandal involving inappropriate contacts with House pages opened up another seat and put the party on the defensive for several weeks.

A third factor is that Democrats did a particularly good job this year of finding moderates and conservatives to run for elections in districts held by Republicans. The chairman of the House and Senate campaigns, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel and New York Senator Charles Schumer, scouted for military veterans, retired sports stars and popular county sheriffs to challenge entrenched Republican incumbents who had drifted from their districts since the Republican takeover of 1994. They also encouraged their candidates to become more forceful in their criticism of the Iraq war, challenging the Republicans on the national security issue that had been their strong suit.

In addition to the Congressional races, Democrats are expecting to make gains in the 36 states that are having gubernatorial elections. Of those, Republicans are defending 22 statehouses; Democrats are trying to hold onto 14. Turnout in many states is also being driven by hot-button ballot initiatives. Where bans on gay marriage helped bring out Republican voters in the last few cycles, initiatives on the minimum wage and on stem-cell research could have the opposite effect this time.