Josh Kurtz: Bartlett Pared

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from what passes for partisan warfare in this state, it’s that Republicans only prosper when Democrats screw up.

Look back over the last few decades: Spiro Agnew was elected governor in 1966 when Democrats nominated a racist yahoo. Twenty years later, Connie Morella won a Montgomery County Congressional district because the Democratic nominee who emerged after a contentious primary was stiff, rich and not especially likeable.

In 1994, Bob Ehrlich won a Congressional seat, and Ellen Sauerbrey was almost elected governor, because Democrats were in poor favor everywhere – and because the Democratic nominees in those two races were flawed. Eight years later, another good election for the GOP, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ran the worst campaign possible – designed to appeal to Republicans and independents – and Ehrlich became the first Republican governor since Agnew.

In 2006, Republicans thought Michael Steele had a chance to be elected to the Senate because the Democratic establishment had rallied around Ben Cardin and not Kweisi Mfume in the primary, and some African-American voters were resentful. But except for a few transactional Prince George’s County pols, black voters stayed faithfully in the Democratic column.

And just last year, Frank Kratovil wiped out – not because he had done anything egregious, but because there was a Republican tidal wave and he was doomed to be dragged under.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that none of these GOP victories or near-wins required hard work, because some of them, obviously, did. But they did not result from any long-term planning by Republicans, or the construction of a party apparatus, or brilliant campaign management. In each case, Democrats at the local, state or national level – or some combination of the three – messed up, and Republicans found themselves in the position to benefit.

As the Maryland General Assembly tackles Congressional redistricting this week, it’s apparent that state Republicans are hoping history repeats itself.

The Democrats, in an effort to boost their 6-2 advantage in Congressional seats to 7-1, are now targeting GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett in Western Maryland. Republicans are predictably screaming “overreach,” and ordinarily they’d have to leave it there.

But now, with some African-American Democrats fuming about how the Congressional map has been drawn (note to Donna Edwards: you have valid points, but you’re making it seem like it’s all about you), Republicans are hoping that somehow, the Democratic redistricting plan will fall apart under the weight of opposition from some fantasy GOP-Legislative Black Caucus coalition.

Good luck with that.

But it’s illustrative. It’s what passes for strategic thinking by the Maryland GOP.

Sure, Maryland Republicans have a right to scream, and they can take comfort in the inevitable editorial page hand wringing about gerrymandering. But that can only take them so far. After all, what they’re objecting to in Maryland is being practiced with great relish by Republicans who dominate the redistricting process in several other states. Pay no attention to the outrage, to the crocodile tears being shed here in the name of good government.

If Maryland Republicans were serious about fighting the Democrats’ redistricting plan, they would have done something proactive – not moaned or threatened law suits or fantasized about phantom alliances with black Democrats. If Maryland Republicans were serious about saving the Western Maryland House seat, they would have handed Roscoe Bartlett a gold watch and pushed him aside months ago.

The general consensus among political professionals in both parties is that Bartlett can’t win. He’s 85 years old, he can’t raise money, and he hasn’t had a tough race in two decades. How can he possibly defeat Rob Garagiola, the handsome, driven state Senate majority leader who is less than half his age – especially with all the new and inhospitable territory in his district?

If you accept this conventional wisdom and you’re a Republican, then you clearly want Bartlett gone. Even if you admire him for his intelligence and his unique way of doing business, you’ve got to realize that he doesn’t have much left in the tank, that he doesn’t match up well with Garagiola, and that his chief argument for re-election – his seniority – is meaningless because GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are not going to favor him with any real position of authority because they think he’s kooky.

No, if you’re a Republican, you want someone young and battle tested in there, like Chris Shank or Alex Mooney or Blaine Young, proven fundraisers who have run tough races in the past few years. You might even hope that a John or a Mary Kane, with all their money, gets in the race.

They may not be perfect candidates, either – and the Democratic gerrymandering in Bartlett’s 6th district may be too severe for any Republican to withstand. But when you think of the Montgomery County territory placed in the newly drawn district, there are plenty of young families there who might at least feel some connection to a Shank or a Mooney when they wouldn’t feel any connection to Bartlett. The Kanes certainly have friends (and some enemies) in the newly drawn 6th.

Will any ambitious Republican try to take Bartlett on, knowing that’s the GOP’s best opportunity to keep the 6th district out of Democratic hands may be next year? Garagiola, after all, isn’t well known there yet, and President Obama could be a drag on the Democratic nominee. Is there any Republican leader at the state or national level with the stature and grace to tell Bartlett that it’s time to exit the stage?

Or was Bartlett’s most recent fundraising report a signal that he doesn’t plan to seek re-election after all? If so, shouldn’t he have announced his intentions earlier?

The wonder is that these conversations didn’t start months ago. Surely Republicans can’t say they were taken by surprise when Democrats decided to target Roscoe Bartlett for extinction. If they don’t put their best gladiator on the field for this battle, then they deserve the drubbing most people expect them to get.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Van Hollen’s Lament

P.G. Law

Race and Races

The Company He Keeps

Baltimore Ravin’s

Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target
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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.