Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R) is stepping down, so District 34 is an open seat. The Democratic primary features Del. Mary-Dulany James, who has served four terms, against former Sen. Art Helton, who served two terms from 1975-83. He also served for two years on the Harford County Council before entering the Senate.
Helton sought to regain his Senate seat in 2002 but incumbent Sen. Nancy Jacobs beat him with 60% of the vote. He challenged Jacobs one more time in 2010 but she won again with 56%, though Helton narrowly carried the Harford portion of the district. His 2014 bid nearly came to an early end when the Board of Elections found he did not reside in District 34. However, they reversed their decision. Similar issues arose during Helton’s 2010 race.
James comes from a political family. Her father, William James, served in the General Assembly for three decades, including as Senate President from 1963-74. After he left the Senate, James served three terms as State Treasurer. The James Senate Office Building in Annapolis is named after him.
James and Helton were nearly evenly matched in campaign funds at the beginning of the year with $50K for James and $48K for Helton. But while James raised $84K, Helton raised less than $1K and loaned his campaign $60K. His campaign finance entity owes him $297K in loans.
I suspect slates matter less here than in other parts of the State because Harford Democrats have a strong incentive to develop a personal brand due to the County’s Republican lean. James has come in a very strong first in all four Democratic primaries for delegate, winning almost every possible vote after the first.
It is hard to see how Helton competes with this level of electoral strength. Moreover, James has shown a consistent willingness to work hard to keep a firm hold on a tough delegate seat. Her fundraising ability also indicates a depth of support even if she may well envy Helton’s ability to self finance. Moreover, she has Senate President Mike Miller on her side.
Redistricting greatly altered District 34. Previously, District 34A included south Harford and a tiny piece of Cecil around Manor Heights, and District 34B was north Cecil (see below). The new District 34 (see above) no longer includes any portion of Cecil. Instead, it pairs most of 34A with former District 35B centered on Bel Air in Harford County.
The new district has roughly the same partisan balance as the old district. The old District 34A has a slight Republican lean–O’Malley and Ehrlich were in a virtual tie though O’Malley won handily statewide. The old District 34B and District 35B were both carried by Ehrlich over O’Malley by roughly 2-1.
So the overall district has a Republican lean but is as Democratic as possible in Harford. Whoever wins the Democratic primary will still have to fight hard to win the general election. Republican Bob Cassilly is a former Bel Air Mayor and Harford County Councilman who left office in 2006 when called up to serve in Iraq.
However, Cassilly has only $15K in his campaign account–not a sign that the Republicans feel encouraged about the race despite the district’s Republican tilt. It also seems telling that the two Republican delegates filed for reelection rather than for the Senate.
James’ electoral record likely intimidates. In her first general election in 1998, she came in first. In 2002, James came in a close second even as the other Democratic incumbent went down to defeat. She easily outdistanced the rest of the field in both 2006 and 2010. Her willingness to work hard for votes no doubt helps–she claims to have knocked on over 10,000 doors already.
Primary Rating: Likely James.