Josh Kurtz: Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

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Will Election Day be merely bad for Democrats across the country, or catastrophic? The answer will have some bearing on what Election Day looks like in Maryland.

History dictates that Democrats will do badly. With just two exceptions since the Civil War — the Depression election of 1934 and the post-9/11 election of 2002 — a new president’s party has always lost a significant chunk of Congressional seats during his first midterm. So even if this was an average year, Democrats could be expected to lose 25 or so seats in the House and five or six in the Senate.

But recent polling suggests the bottom could be dropping out for the Democrats. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed more people disapproving than approving of President Barack Obama’s job performance for the first time. It also showed a significant spike in the number of voters who feel the country is headed in the wrong direction — an ominous sign for the party in power.

Suddenly it seems that Democrats are in grave danger of losing 39 House seats or more — enough to give Republicans control. Republicans are also in reach of flipping the 10 Senate seats they need to gain control there.

Small wonder that in a recent TV interview, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, one of the toughest and savviest Democratic operatives around, was arguing that the fall elections will be a choice between the two political parties, rather than a referendum on the Democrats, who have controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the past 18 months. That’s the exact opposite of the argument that Emanuel and other Democrats were making in 2006, when they were bidding to take control of Congress. Then, they insisted it was a referendum on Republican rule.

So which is it, guys? Of course the Democrats are hoping it’s a choice election and not a referendum. Polls have shown that voters don’t particularly have a high opinion of Republicans, either, and in fact blame George W. Bush for the lousy economy. But they’re still far more likely to punish the Democrats come November.

This is double trouble for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Polls are already showing his rematch with former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) is a tossup. Voters have pleasant memories of Ehrlich. They think he’s a nice guy, the economy wasn’t nearly as bad during his tenure as it is now, and he didn’t raise taxes (though he of course raised myriad fees).

Voters’ opinions of O’Malley aren’t nearly so charitable. In much the same way that Obama isn’t getting political credit for some of the bold steps he’s had to take to confront Bush’s messes, O’Malley isn’t being given credit for some of the tougher moves he’s had to make to keep the state solvent.

Some people — even Democrats — were wondering why O’Malley has launched a fusillade of attacks on Ehrlich this week in radio ads. The answer should be obvious. In this political environment, O’Malley isn’t going to score a lot of points building himself up — he’s going to have to make voters dislike the other guy. And time is of the essence: if late September rolls around and O’Malley is still even with Ehrlich in the polls, in what is shaping up to be a big Republican year, he’s probably going to lose — and he knows it.

(Ehrlich now has had the benefit of running in two good Republican years, this year and in 2002; he also ran in a bad Republican year, in 2006, when he was ousted by O’Malley. Wouldn’t it be nice to see these guys go at it in a neutral year, to see what a fair fight might look like?)

A bad Democratic year nationally has consequences in Maryland beyond the gubernatorial election. Democrats are in no danger of losing control of the state legislature, but some Democratic legislative seats could be in jeopardy.

Just as the most vulnerable Democratic Congressional seats across the country are in rural or blue- collar districts, the same is true in Maryland. So you can look around the state and begin to identify some of the most endangered legislators and legislative districts.

Start with Del. John Donoghue (D) in Washington County and move east to the seat that Del. Sue Hecht (D) is giving up in Frederick. Baltimore County is always a target of opportunity for the GOP, especially the seats of Sen. Jim Brochin (D) and Del. Steve Lafferty (D). A big Republican year probably also puts Ken Holt (R) within striking distance in the Baltimore County executive election.

In Anne Arundel County, if the year gets really bad for Democrats, House Speaker Mike Busch (D) could be in trouble — and wouldn’t knocking him off be a coup for the Republicans? Dels. Ted Sophocleus, Mary Ann Love and Pamela Beidle are potentially vulnerable, but will probably survive. A bad Democratic year increases the re-election prospects of Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold (R), despite any residue of personal scandal floating around him.

Across the Bay, another big name, House Appropriations Chairman Norm Conway (D), is in danger — all the more so in a strong Republican year. The GOP also sees opportunity in Southern Maryland, though the three counties have diverged in recent years. Perhaps the most intriguing question there is whether Del. John Bohanan (D), a rising star in Annapolis, is in any kind of peril. His ties to popular Democratic state Sen. Roy Dyson (he’s his brother-in-law) and U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (he’s his district director) no doubt help him.

Still, there’s no shortage of potential pain for Maryland Democrats this fall. So pay at least some attention to what those pundits and pollsters are saying in Washington, D.C., as Election Day grows closer. It could make a difference in your back yard.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood

Taylor-Made

Black and Blue?

Slugfest

Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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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.