Brown field office

AFSCME volunteers Rhonda Neubauer and Dale Chase put together lawn signs while other volunteers work the phone bank behind them, at the Baltimore County Field Office for Anthony Brown-Ken Ulman at 1840 York Road. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / May 7, 2014)

For the first time in two decades, Baltimore County doesn't have a favorite son or daughter in the governor's race. All the more reason why candidates seeking Maryland's top office are fighting for the votes of county residents.

"Baltimore County is going to be critical because it's the third-largest pool of Democratic votes," said John T. Willis, a high-profile Democrat and author of a book on Maryland politics.

On the Republican side, Helen Delich Bentley, who represented the county in Congress for a decade, has no doubt of its importance in her party's primary. Baltimore County has more Republican voters than any other jurisdiction in the state.

"Whoever carries Baltimore County is the one that's going to win," Bentley said.

Not since 1990 — when Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer ran against William S. Shepard of Montgomery County — have the major parties failed to nominate a Baltimore County native or resident for governor. In the years since, Republicans Ellen Sauerbrey and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have been on the November ballot, and others from the county — including Bentley — vied in the primaries.

So this year, the three Democrats in the June 24 primary — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur, all from the Washington suburbs — have been working hard to get county residents in their corner. They have been operating phone banks, sending volunteers door to door and making personal appearance before political clubs and at fairs and parades.

Ditto for the four Republicans, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Larry Hogan and Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, and Charles Lollar of Charles County.

George said his message about spurring manufacturing and export-import businesses in Baltimore "also plays into Baltimore County. They're affected by what happens in the city."

George, who owns a small business, said he believes the key to winning in the county will be "showing that you're one of them."

Baltimore County, which has more than 800,000 residents and is the third-largest locality in the state, sprawls across some 600 square miles. It encompasses rolling horse farms, middle-class subdivisions, onetime bedroom communities for the now-idle Sparrows Point steel plant and pockets of poverty. In April, the most recent data available, its unemployment rate of 5.6 percent was higher than the state average of 5.3 percent.

Anirban Basu, senior economist at the Sage Policy Group, said the key issues vary significantly in different parts of the county.

"Baltimore County is many counties wrapped into one envelope," he said. In the affluent north, taxes and business regulation are key concerns. In the southeast, restoring the jobs base, affordable housing and better schools will be on people's minds. In the Woodlawn area, mass transit will join jobs and education as a key concern, he said.

But as in many other communities across the state, it has been hard getting voters to pay attention to a primary that's been moved up from September.

During a Sunday afternoon campaign stop outside his county headquarters in Pikesville, Gansler did his best to rev up excitement in the race. He told supporters that every vote is critical in what is expected to be a low-turnout contest.

Turnout is "not going to be extremely high because nobody knows there's an election in June," Gansler told the crowd, urging them to knock on doors and make phone calls to get supporters to the polls.

Jules Rosenberg of Reisterstown, who attended the Gansler event, said he's not seeing the passion he remembers from his days as a volunteer for George McGovern's presidential race in 1972.

"I think it's a sign of the time when people are so disconnected from flesh touching flesh," he said.

State Sen. James Brochin, a north county Democrat known for his door-to-door campaigning, has a similar take: "I have never seen a race in all of my 20 years of being actively involved in Maryland politics where there's less enthusiasm about a governor's race than this year."

Don Murphy, a longtime GOP activist and former delegate from Catonsville, hasn't detected much enthusiasm on the Republican side, either. He said Republican voters don't see many differences among the four candidates and could live with any of them.

"I don't think the world ends if one gets nominated over the other," he said. "Everybody wants somebody more exciting because that's the way everybody is."