Josh Kurtz: The Colm Before the Storm

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By: Josh Kurtz 

In the White House political shop, and at the Democratic congressional campaign committees, panic – or at least a kind of melancholy – has set in.

Republicans seem increasingly likely to seize control of the U.S. Senate and pad their already-skewed majority in the House of Representatives, and there isn’t much the Democratic operatives can do about it. Every time President Obama opens his mouth in public these days – and he’s doing that a lot, what with multiple, confidence-deflating crises raging at home and abroad – Democrats running for House and Senate seem to lose votes.

But in his airy office overlooking K Street in Washington, D.C., Colm O’Comartun, the longtime lieutenant to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) who is completing his fourth year as executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, has a surprising spring in his step. The walls may be closing in on Democrats at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, but the DGA a month before Election Day is still relatively bullish, especially about its prospects of flipping some of the statehouses that went Republican in the last GOP wave election, four years ago.

“This is an exciting map for us,” O’Comartun says. “Every race is very different. That’s what makes this job so fascinating.”

It’s no accident that O’Comartun, a 47-year-old Irish-born master political mechanic who came to this country in the 1990’s, is situated where he is. In addition to his day job, he serves as O’Malley’s unofficial eyes and ears in Washington.

It’s fair to say that O’Malley himself has a lot riding on what happens this election – at home, of course, where the race to replace him between Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) and businessman Larry Hogan (R) is inevitably seen as a referendum on his eight years in Annapolis, but also around the country. O’Malley was DGA chairman in 2011 and ’12, and has spent the past two years as the campaign committee’s finance chairman. He’s on the road regularly, stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

“Nobody,” O’Comartun says, “has worked harder as chair of the DGA and finance chair than Martin O’Malley. His colleagues know it. His peers have tremendous respect for him.”

When the dismal numbers come in for Democrats in House and Senate races next month, national pundits will breathlessly (and probably erroneously) try to interpret their meaning, not just for Obama and the last two years of his presidency – and his legacy – but also, looking ahead to 2016, for Hillary Clinton. What a nice contrast for O’Malley, who seems determined now to wage an upstart campaign against Clinton Inc., if he can bask in the victories of some Democratic candidates for governor.

If these Democrats do well, O’Comartun will be one of the main architects of their success. While the DGA has predictably been outraised by its counterpart, the Republican Governors Association, O’Comartun has put in place an infrastructure designed to capitalize on the Democratic candidates’ strengths and exploit any GOP weaknesses. As a result, he says, DGA candidates “are less susceptible to the [Republican] wave.”

Like any good staffer, O’Comartun is deflecting praise from himself and instead emphasizing the merits and political strengths of his stable of candidates. One thing that’s clear to him, he says, is the diversity of the Democratic gubernatorial contenders. They fit their state profiles well, in his view, whereas Republican governors and challenger candidates, wherever they are, “have to hew very close to an ideological line.”

“No matter how independent a Republican governor looks…he’s going to have to have a singular focus on hollowing out the middle class in order to expand opportunities for the wealthy,” O’Comartun says.   

This presents Democrats, he adds, with “state-friendly opportunities” that enable them to be largely inoculated from whatever ails the national party. “Democratic governors have the advantage of being able to have a conversation with the voters that’s separate from a national conversation.”

Right now, Democrats are almost certain to oust a Republican governor in Pennsylvania – breaking a trend that dates back to World War II, where voters in the Keystone State have granted a second term to every governor seeking re-election. They are likely to beat a Republican governor in Maine, though an independent candidate is complicating matters for the Democrats and polling in double digits.

O’Comartun says the DGA feels “very, very good” about its prospects in Florida, where former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat, is trying to knock off Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan, he says, are “wonderful additions” to the list of places where the DGA is on offense. And, he adds, “we feel very good” about Georgia and South Carolina.

So what keeps O’Comartun up at nights? He’s diplomatic and won’t answer specifically, but puts it this way: “We’re an incumbent protection organization, first and foremost.”

And there are incumbents to worry about, even in blue states: Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) are vulnerable. So is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) – though Colorado is more of a purple state that has trended Democratic in recent election cycles.

“Incumbent protection” also means worrying about holding on to states where Democratic governors are departing – including tossup races in Arkansas, Hawaii and Massachusetts. Maryland, of course, is also in that broader category.

The DGA has already invested more than $1.1 million in ads attacking Hogan – a sign, many political observers believe, that the campaign committee is nervous about Brown. Not so, O’Comartun insists. Instead, he says, the DGA is just making sure that regardless of how Hogan is packaging himself, voters recognize that the GOP nominee is “going to trot out the same failed Republican ideology that we have seen around the country.”

Regardless of how these battleground elections turn out, O’Comartun will emerge a valuable political commodity. It’s widely assumed that he will, before too long, become a key part of any O’Malley presidential operation.

“I’ll always help Gov. O’Malley in no matter what he does,” says O’Comartun, who first worked for O’Malley at Baltimore City Hall in 2002. “He’s been a tremendous friend and ally.”

But asked whether that involves joining O’Malley’s campaign full-time, O’Comartun demurs. “I am fully focused on electing more Democratic governors.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.