Josh Kurtz: Democratic Self-Interest

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Two debates down, one to go.

Whatever you may think of these candidates for governor, it’s probably safe to say that the debates haven’t changed very many people’s minds, if anyone is paying attention. Whether they are or not, what we’re looking at here is a tight election.

Republican Larry Hogan seems to have the issues on his side – or, to put it more succinctly, the issue. Voters are most concerned about taxes and spending.

Small wonder Democrat Anthony Brown is telling voters, in so many words, to read his lips. There will be no new taxes, he asserts – a promise he may find very difficult to deliver.

Brown felt he had to say this – so be it. But it’s hard to see how a no new taxes pledge is going to help him achieve his short-term goal, which is not to blunt Hogan’s carping about profligacy in Annapolis, but to turn out the most loyal – and the most liberal – Democratic voters.

If Brown is to win this election, it’s going to be done in the traditional Democratic strongholds of Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George counties, with Charles and Howard counties playing a secondary role. He should set aside any notion that places often up for grabs in statewide elections, like Baltimore County, are still in play. That county, according to all public and private polling data, is lost.

The Democrats may find the business of turning out voters in their “Big Three” this fall especially difficult, because all the important races in those jurisdictions were settled in June, and voters are being served up very few reminders that there’s an election on. By contrast, territory where Republicans tend to do well, like Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, have no shortage of competitive general election races. Advantage Hogan.

Should Democrats be nervous? Yes. Are they? You bet. Yet if Brown’s turnout operation is sound – and many Democrats are comforting themselves that it is, despite the all-too-often uninspiring public performances of the candidate himself – he will win.

To measure just how nervous Democrats are, though, check out the volume of Steny Hoyer’s exhortations at party unity rallies and GOTV events. It’s as if, by shouting louder, Hoyer, God bless him, thinks he can will Anthony Brown across the finish line. Maybe he’s on to something.

But for all the institutional Democratic support that will benefit Brown, to one degree or another, there exists a subset of party leaders who wouldn’t be all that heartbroken to see Hogan pull an upset. These are the Democrats who imagine running for governor themselves in 2018 – and saving the party, and the state, from eight years of Gov. Hogan.

Let us stipulate that these Democrats aren’t necessarily rooting against Brown; some are even helping him. But it’s fair to say that as their nominee continues to post lackluster poll numbers, a few light bulbs are probably going off. For these Democrats, a Hogan victory represents their best shot – and maybe their only shot – at the brass ring, because a Gov. Brown presumably serves through 2022, with Lt. Gov. Ken Ulman at the head of the line to succeed him.

When Bob Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002, it was pretty apparent that the legislature was going to be an effective rear guard to stymie a good portion of his agenda. It was also crystal clear that the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006 was going to be Martin O’Malley or Doug Duncan – and Duncan only if O’Malley stumbled dramatically.

But contemplating the aftermath of a potential Hogan upset at this stage, it’s hard to see what happens, beyond the legislature once again being a dependable roadblock to Gov. Hogan’s most conservative inclinations. Looking ahead to 2018, there is no O’Malley figure set to dominate the picture; the field could be wide open.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) would no doubt look at running for governor under this scenario. He’ll be term limited in 2018, and while he occasionally tells acquaintances that he anticipates returning to the private sector then, he’s got no shortage of political ambition.

Congressman John Delaney (D) seems destined to run for governor some day; 2018 could be his moment. As the third wealthiest member of Congress, according to Roll Call, he could be very formidable.

Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) will be urged to run for governor, and he’s sure to take a look, even though he will be 71 then. But as the most prominent Democrat in the state whose own rap on taxes and spending is closest to Hogan’s, he may find himself in an awkward position, and any desire to lead the “loyal opposition” will fully take hold only if he can convincingly boomerang back to his “progressive summit” days.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), if she survives her own reelection in 2016, will surely be looking to move on by then, and she can be a legitimate contender if she wants to be. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) may or may not be termed out in 2018, depending on the will of county voters this November, so this may be his one opportunity to run for statewide office, if that interests him. Powerful forces in the D.C. suburbs – including The Washington Post, if it still exists then – will be urging him to do so.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett (D) would no doubt be waiting for people to urge him to run. It seems improbable that anybody would, and he’ll be 73 in 2018. On the other hand, after voters watch the Democratic legislature and the bombastic Hogan go at it for four years, Leggett’s quiet leadership style may seem like a balm.

Del. Heather Mizeur (D), who has yet to reveal what her next act will be, may be itching for another chance, and she’s got an enthusiastic core of supporters. Outgoing Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) may think he can get a fairer shake without Brown in the field.

Then there’s Ulman – smart, respected, and well-qualified. But Ulman – like Mizeur and Gansler – will be out of office under the Gov. Hogan scenario. What do any of them do to keep themselves relevant and in the public eye?

And don’t forget about Tom Perez – possibly the most talented politician of the lot.

Now imagine this scenario and Sen. Ben Cardin (D) deciding not to seek a third term in 2018. Maryland Democrats might just lose their minds.

None of this is likely to happen. Brown will probably win; Cardin will probably run again. But it’s hard not to dream, as Brown and Hogan limp to their third debate and voters look ahead to an Election Day that is feeling very, very dissatisfying.

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.