updated 7/16/2008 5:12:36 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:12:36

Just south of the Mason-Dixon line and just north of the line between the Union and the Confederacy, the midpoint of the 13 colonies, Maryland has always been betwixt and between. It has a claim to be the typical American state, yet stands out for its particularities. This was the only one of the 13 colonies founded by Roman Catholics—the Calvert family—and its embrace of religious tolerance came less from abstract principle than from the Calverts’ desire to protect their property from Protestant monarchs: A harbinger of Maryland’s practical-mindedness. Similarly, although hot-blooded Baltimoreans wanted to secede in 1861 (‘‘Maryland, My Maryland’’ condemns Abraham Lincoln’s suppression of pro-Confederate rioters), practical heads prevailed.

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The puritan impulse was never lively here: Prohibition was enforced only laxly in Baltimore, to the delight of its great journalist-cum-lexicographer H.L. Mencken, who called it Charm City; slot machines were legal in the rural counties of the Western Shore; horse-racing once thrived here, and has tried to escape its current problems by adding slots. An old state law guaranteeing blacks equal access to public accommodations specifically excluded the Eastern Shore. By not pursuing any one course rigorously, Maryland could be many things at once: Northern as well as Southern, moralistic as well as libertine, industrial as well as rural, leaving people to their own devices yet with a heavy government presence. Perhaps as a result, much of Maryland’s political history reads like a chronicle of rogues. Maryland’s genial tolerance may have given it a little too savory a history, but this state cherishes its sense of uniqueness. The Chesapeake Bay, for example, is the nation’s largest estuary, with water saltier than a river but fresher than the ocean and with unique watermen and shellfish. The terrapin and Chesapeake oyster are rare today; oystermen harvested 5.6 million bushels in 1900 but only 148,000 in 2002, and, thanks in part to the cow-nosed ray, 26,000 in 2004. Rockfish and Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are much scarcer too.

Maryland has some reason to be proud of the economy, or economies, it has built over the years. Half a century ago, half the state’s population lived in the city of Baltimore and only one-fifth in the suburbs. Now the proportions are the other way around, and then some: 11% Baltimore, 75% in the suburbs. The Census Bureau classifies Washington-Baltimore as a single metropolitan area, the nation’s fourth largest, with 8 million people. But Baltimore and Washington are not fraternal twins like Dallas and Fort Worth or Minneapolis and St. Paul; they are two quite separate cities, with different economic bases and different attitudes toward public life. Baltimore started off as a port and an industrial city, and has managed to stay diversified and successful as it spread out into the countryside from its new central core at the Inner Harbor and the solidly built edifices of its downtown grid streets. With its large suburban population, Maryland ranks second in median household income, after similarly suburban New Jersey. It is home to the Orioles in their popular Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the first of the new-old ballparks of the 1990s, and to Johns Hopkins University, with its Georgian buildings along the affluent corridor that runs directly north from downtown all the way to the developing edge city of Hunt Valley.

Baltimore remains the focus of Maryland’s public life, for 47% of Marylanders still live in its metropolitan area, and its influence is far greater than Washington’s on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. For years, most of Maryland’s successful statewide politicians came from Baltimore; today, both senators live there and commute to Washington. Baltimore has a long Democratic tradition, and most voters in the metropolitan area are registered Democrats; their default mode is to vote Democratic. Maryland did elect a Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, in 2002, by a 52%-48% margin over Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who suffered from some of the accumulated resentments of outgoing Governor Parris Glendening. But Ehrlich, despite a job approval rating above 50% after long and constant wrangling with the heavily Democratic legislature, lost 53%-46% to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley in 2006. Ehrlich’s share of the vote dropped 9% in the Baltimore suburbs, despite his characteristic Bawlmer accent (you can hear it in Barry Levinson and John Waters movies) and fell 6% to 7% on the Eastern Shore and in Southern and Western Maryland. Republican statewide candidates need more than two-thirds of the non-black votes to win, and that’s pretty hard to achieve when 17% of the votes are cast in the upscale and heavily liberal suburbs of Montgomery County, northwest of Washington.

That makes Maryland one of the nation’s most Democratic states. It produced higher percentages for Al Gore and John Kerry than all but a handful of other states. Democrats held their 33–14 lead in the state Senate and picked up six seats in the House of Delegates in 2006, and have more than two-thirds of both houses. Top positions in the big counties’ governments remain a near-monopoly of Democrats; Democrats picked up two Republican-held U.S. House seats in 2002, thanks to partisan redistricting—the best such pickup for Democrats in the entire nation. Maryland has not elected a Republican senator since Charles Mathias in 1980; Ehrlich was the first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew, elected in 1966. That gives Maryland some very long-lasting Democratic officeholders, with major influence over important issues, though it is often quietly exercised. Senator Barbara Mikulski was first elected to the Senate in 1986 and the House in 1976; Senator Paul Sarbanes retired in 2006 after 30 years in the Senate and served six years in the House before that. The new senator, Ben Cardin, served for 20 years in the House. All served in the same seat in the House (though redistricting changed its boundaries drastically), which is now represented by John Sarbanes, the senator’s son. Maryland’s most influential House member is Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, first elected in 1981, who was elected state Senate President in 1975, at 35; Cardin was elected Speaker of the House of Delegates in 1979, also at 35.

One reason for this Democratic strength is that some 29% of Marylanders are black, the fifth-highest percentage of any state, after Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina. Many of Maryland’s blacks, especially in Prince George’s County, are highly educated and economically upscale, but they vote almost as heavily Democratic as more downscale blacks. Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, the Republican nominee for senator in 2006, who is black and from Prince George’s County, hoped to make big inroads among blacks, but made only small ones: he got 25% from blacks statewide but only 50% of whites, in contrast to Ehrlich who got 15% from blacks and 54% of whites. Steele won 23% in Baltimore City and 24% in Prince George’s, not much above George W. Bush’s 17% in those jurisdictions, and essentially even with Bush’s percentages in almost all the rest of the state—not nearly enough to win in a state John Kerry carried 56%-43%. Cardin beat Steele 54%-44%, a solid margin and notably larger than the 44%-41% margin by which he beat former Congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary. Mfume carried Baltimore City with 64% of the vote and Prince George’s County, which cast more votes, with 70%; he also carried Charles County, where most new residents are blacks moving south from Prince George’s. That suggests some tension within the Democratic coalition, but it was not enough to give Republicans an upset victory.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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