Josh Kurtz: 2016 Begets 2018

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When Pat Murray, the new executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, spoke to the District 14 Democratic Club in Olney last month, he asked the 40 assembled party activists how many had gone to Virginia for the Obama campaign in 2008 or 2012 – or had phoned voters in that state.

Every hand in the room shot up.

“Congratulations,” Murray said. “You made history” by helping elect the nation’s first African-American president. But in doing so, the veteran strategist went on, the Democrats may have inadvertently hurt their party at home.

Murray aims to change that. With Maryland Democrats still reeling from Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) upset victory last November, Murray wants to use the 2016 election as a party-building exercise for 2018.

That would represent a change from recent history. And it’s a reminder that presidential election years – often ignored or dismissed by Maryland political insiders, who consider gubernatorial election years the Main Event in the state – can be incredibly meaningful and important. Already we can start to see how 2016 could impact 2018 here.

Since 1988, when George H.W. Bush beat the hapless Michael Dukakis in Maryland by 3 points, Democrats have done so well in White House elections in the state that it’s lulled them into a false sense of security. Between 1992 and 2012, the Democratic presidential nominee carried Maryland by anywhere from 13 to 26 points.

Yet even with a voter registration advantage of almost 2-1, Democrats have struggled in gubernatorial elections going back to 1994. In that span, they’ve lost two and essentially tied in one, and the others have been too close for comfort even when they won.

That’s partially explained by a national trend: Voter turnout, and especially turnout of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, is a lot higher in presidential years. But it’s also fair to say that Maryland Democratic leaders haven’t adequately built on whatever momentum there may have been coming out of presidential elections.

That too appears to be part of a national trend. In an article that appeared on the wonky website Vox last week (http://www.vox.com/2015/10/19/9565119/democrats-in-deep-trouble), writer Matthew Yglesias persuasively argued that even with all the Republican dysfunction in Congress and GOP extremism on daily display in the presidential campaign, Democrats are in much worse political shape than they like to think they are – principally because they have ignored state and local elections across the country.

Sure, you can get Democrats – especially young voters – excited about a charismatic, transformational figure like Barack Obama. But try getting them motivated to help save state Sen. Ron Young’s (D) seat in Western Maryland.

The careerist class of Democrats in Montgomery County is already anticipating the phone call inviting them to be President Hillary Clinton’s assistant secretary of Commerce. But try telling them why the wipeout of Democrats in eastern Baltimore County is important, and their eyes will glaze over.

That’s the challenge that Pat Murray and Democratic strategists across the country are facing.

We don’t know exactly what the national political trends will be like in 2016. Chances are, the general election for president will be close. The Democrats have a fighting chance of taking back the U.S. Senate. The House of Representatives will remain a Republican stronghold.

In Maryland, we can anticipate another big win for the Democratic presidential nominee. Whomever the Democrats nominate to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) will be strongly favored – though some Republicans quietly believe that Del. Kathy Szeliga (R) is capable of pulling an upset if Rep. Donna Edwards is the Democratic nominee.

But even though the battle for the Republican presidential nomination seems more unsettled than the Democratic contest, it’s the Democratic nomination fight that could have an impact on Maryland.

If the Democratic nomination is settled by the time the April 26 primary rolls around, that could affect the Senate primary and the primaries for Baltimore mayor and for the 4th and 8th district congressional seats. Without a competitive presidential primary, voter turnout could be very, very low.

But there are other potential scenarios to contemplate. If the Baltimore mayoral primary heats up, that could affect the Senate race, and favor the Democratic Senate candidate who is best able to turn out the vote in the city.

If Clinton has sewn up the presidential nomination, and progressive activists are feeling aggrieved, could that benefit insurgent primary candidates like Edwards in the Senate race? Does Clinton’s presence on the primary ballot yield a big women’s vote? If Clinton is somehow out of the presidential picture, do women voters compensate by voting for women in the Senate, House and mayoral primaries?

Remember, with Mikulski retiring and with Edwards running for Senate, Maryland could wind up with an all-male congressional delegation in 2017. Does that figure in Democratic voters’ thinking? Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) is departing, too.

Looking ahead, it’s easy to see another national Republican wave in 2018 if a Democrat is elected president in 2016 – especially if it’s a divisive figure like Clinton. That could cripple Democrats’ efforts to oust Hogan and regain some of the territory they lost in the state in 2014. In fact, a Clinton presidency may be Pat Murray’s biggest nightmare.

If a Republican is elected president in 2016, the Democrats will do better in the midterms – and their task in Maryland becomes easier, because Democratic voters will be angrier and more inclined to reclaim lost ground.

But it’s conceivable that an all-Republican lineup at the federal level, coupled with Hogan firmly ensconced in Annapolis, could so infuriate Maryland progressives that they move to nominate the most liberal candidate for governor in 2018. That could aid U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, one of a half dozen or so possible Democratic candidates for governor. But does it help Democrats take back the governor’s mansion or win again in Essex and Cumberland and Leonardtown?

We’re in the realm of the speculative now. What isn’t in dispute is that the 2016 election will have all kinds of consequences in Maryland – for the short, middle and long term.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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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.