Josh Kurtz: Against All Odds

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By: Josh Kurtz 

The circumstances aren’t nearly as dire for Maryland Democrats as they are for their national counterparts.

But there are some eerie similarities between the U.S. senators who are fighting for their political lives this fall and the Maryland state senators who are fighting for theirs.

What they have in common is the hostile territory the Democrats are battling on. To prevail in these contests, the Democrats are going to have to dramatically surpass their party’s average performance levels, in some cases by 20 points or more.

But Democrats have quality candidates in many of these races. Not only that, many of these candidates have a strong political brand – either through their own work, or from the political legacies of their families – that often inoculates them even in the most challenging electoral environments.

The question is whether the political undertow is just too powerful this fall, and whether a significant number of these proven Democratic candidates are going to be dragged under. The mission for Republicans in these states and districts is to tie their opponents to unpopular Democrats, whether it’s President Obama or Harry Reid or Martin O’Malley.

The U.S. Senate map is stunningly unforgiving for Democrats this year. Republicans need to flip six seats to seize control of the chamber, and it almost looks too easy. All Republicans have to do is win seats in West Virginia, which Obama lost by 26 points in 2012; Arkansas, which Obama lost by 24 points; South Dakota, which he lost by 18 points; Louisiana (17 points); Alaska (14 points), and Montana (13 points).

The Senate race in North Carolina, which Obama lost by 2 points in 2012 after winning it more narrowly in 2008, is tight as a tick. And Republicans have a reasonable chance of winning Democratic-held Senate seats in Iowa and Colorado, states Obama won twice; races in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia – all won by Obama in 2008 and 2012 – could become uncomfortably close for Democrats if a true GOP wave develops.

Senate Democrats are trying to play offense in three Republican-held states, but once again the numbers are daunting. The states are Georgia, which Obama lost by 7 points in 2012; Kansas, which he lost by 22 points, and Kentucky, which he lost by 23 points.

Democrats may lose all these Senate races, given the electoral trends in the battleground states and Obama’s historical low standing in national and state polls. But Democratic strategists aren’t throwing in the towel yet, and nonpartisan analysts aren’t prepared to declare these races over.

Part of what is tempering the Democrats’ inclination to be pessimistic is the political pedigree of some of their candidates in these red states. In race after race, Democrats have candidates with long-standing political brands, stronger than those of your average officeholder.

Take Louisiana, for example, where Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is part of a political dynasty that includes her father, former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, who later served as Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Jimmy Carter, and her brother, Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans’ current mayor and a former lieutenant governor.

Landrieu is hardly running a mistake-free campaign. But she knows how to cater to Louisiana’s powerful business interests. And in a state with a peculiar primary system and political calendar, Landrieu is battle-tested – and her name means something.

In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is also a political scion, whose dad, David Pryor, is a former congressman, governor and senator who is campaigning vigorously to save his son’s seat (David Pryor was also a mentor to one Bill Clinton).

Mark Pryor was considered so formidable when he last ran for reelection, in 2008, that he had no Republican opponent, even as Obama was losing the state by 20 points.

In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) is the son of former Congressman Nick Begich (D), who is presumed to have died in a plane crash in Alaska just before the 1972 election (the plane and its occupants were never found). As he fights for a second term, Mark Begich aired an ad earlier this year that drew parallels between his dedication to the job and his father’s; it may be the best political ad of this election cycle.

And in Georgia, where Democrats increasingly think they have a chance of flipping a Senate seat, their nominee is Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive whose father, Sam Nunn, represented the state in the Senate for two dozen years. (Coincidentally, while Michelle Nunn flirts with an upset, Georgia Democrats have a similarly strong scion running for governor – state Sen. Jason Carter, Jimmy Carter’s grandson, who has an outside chance of ousting GOP Gov. Nathan Deal.)

Now take a look at some of the most competitive state Senate races in Maryland, and you see some of the same patterns. Some districts would be completely lost causes for Democrats if their candidates didn’t have strong political brands.

Probably the most vulnerable Democratic state senator is Roy Dyson, who is trying to hang on in a part of St. Mary’s County that is increasingly hostile to Democrats. But Dyson has been winning elections for state and federal office there since 1974; voters forgave him and revived his political career even after he left Congress under a cloud of scandal. So he cannot be counted out.

Sen. Ron Young (D) in Western Maryland is also running in a hostile environment, which is exacerbated by general Young fatigue in Frederick County (a topic of a future column). But he’s also got a political brand, which his young challenger, Corey Stottlemyer, cannot match.

On the Eastern Shore, Sen. Jim Mathias (D) would probably be a dead man walking if his career was defined just by his time in Annapolis. But he’s also been Ocean City’s prime cheerleader, all those years he was mayor, and was a well-respected member of the vacation city’s business community.

Democratic legacies are competing in two tough open-seat Senate races. In eastern Baltimore County, an area that has become startlingly toxic for Democrats this cycle, Del. John Olszewski Jr. (D) will probably hang on to the Senate seat occupied for almost five decades by conservative Democrat Norman Stone. But without the Johnny O brand – and the young candidate’s hard work – that seat might be lost to Democrats. (It must be noted that Olszewski’s dad, retiring Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., has not been an asset to every candidate he’s supported this year.)

And in Harford County, where Republicans are defending the seat of retiring Sen. Nancy Jacobs, no one would be suggesting that Democrats have a chance if their nominee weren’t Del. Mary-Dulany James – who, after all, is bidding to work in a legislative building named for her father.

There is one more highly competitive Senate race in Maryland, in Towson and environs, where Democratic Sen. Jim Brochin may hold off a challenge from physician Tim Robinson. Brochin doesn’t have a political brand in quite the same way the Dysons and Mathiases do; instead, he has shown inhuman stamina on the campaign trail. Like another man with boundless energy whose last name began with the letters B-R-O, the Godfather of Soul himself, Brochin is the hardest-working man in show business.

It pays to have a brand name in a tough political climate. Whether that’s enough to save these state Senate seats for Maryland Democrats – or help them maintain control of the U.S. Senate – is one of the big mysteries heading into Election Day.

But it proves once again that the fundamentals of a race aren’t always determinative. Candidates – and campaigns – still matter. 

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.