Josh Kurtz: Barren Territory

Posted by on in Blog
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 4042
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print
  • Report this post

By: Josh Kurtz 

Harford County Executive David Craig, the leading GOP candidate for governor, is scheduled to address a pizza and beer gathering of Montgomery County Republicans early next month at a restaurant in Kensington.

He doesn’t get to the state’s largest jurisdiction very often, and why should he? Montgomery County has become strikingly inhospitable to Republican candidates in the last few election cycles.

That’s a trend that scholars and political strategists are starting to take note of nationally. Close-in suburbs have now become almost as reliably Democratic as big cities.

Political demographer Dante Chinni found that in suburbs bordering big cities, President Obama last year took 57 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Mitt Romney. That’s not too far off from the split in the cities themselves, where Obama had a 65 percent to 34 percent edge. Obama won 98 percent of the nation’s 50 largest counties (Romney won 98 percent of the nation’s 50 smallest counties).

Race and ethnicity explains part of the trend, as suburbs like Montgomery become ever more diverse. “When whites tip below 70 percent [of a jurisdiction’s population], Republicans lose,” Bill McInturff, a leading GOP pollster, told Politico last week.

Montgomery County is a majority-minority jurisdiction now, and Obama won more than 70 percent of the vote there last year.

In Maryland, Republicans are losing ground in several former strongholds. Democrats swept a majority of seats on the Frederick Board of Aldermen two weeks ago, and the 2014 county executive race there appears to be a tossup at this early stage. A large influx of African-American residents in the past decade has made Charles County reliably Democratic, even as the other two Southern Maryland counties become more Republican. There’s minor Democratic growth in Hagerstown and other parts of Washington County as well.

But if one place symbolizes the futility Republicans are facing in statewide elections, it’s Montgomery County. Mildly competitive there not so long ago, with a small complement of elected officials and a decent bench of challengers even in heavily Democratic districts, Republicans have bottomed out in Montgomery. And even with the cyclical nature of politics, there are no short- or medium or long-term prospects for improvement.

As 1995 dawned, three members of the county’s state Senate delegation, and eight state delegates were Republicans – 11 Republicans in 32 slots overall. So were two of Montgomery’s nine County Council members. And Republican Connie Morella represented about 80 percent of the county in Congress.

Just two months earlier, Ellen Sauerbrey, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Montgomery County, had taken more than 41 percent of the vote there, en route to losing statewide by less than 6,000 votes. Looking ahead to 1998, Republican strategists figured that if their nominee could get up to 43 or 44 percent in Montgomery, statewide victory would be guaranteed.

It seemed plausible at the time. But of course, it never happened.

In her 1998 rematch with Democrat Parris Glendening, Sauerbrey won just 38 percent of the vote in Montgomery County – and Glendening won statewide by almost 10 points. The GOP lost three of the five House seats it held in upcounty legislative districts that year, and it lost one House seat in the northeast corner of the county.

Democrats that year came tantalizingly close to toppling two Republican state senators from the upcounty – including P.J. Hogan, who switched parties and became a Democrat two years later. (If Democrats had invested just a little money in that race, Maurice Miles, a retired federal worker, would have become the county’s first African-American senator – and the county continues to have an all-white Senate delegation all these years later.)

In the next few election cycles, Montgomery Democrats continued to chip away at the few GOP officeholders who were hanging on for dear life. Morella lost to Chris Van Hollen (D) in 2002. And after the 2006 elections, the county’s last Republican elected officials, Del. Jean Cryor and County Councilman Howie Denis – both more liberal than at least two dozen Democratic state lawmakers – were gone.

The trend was also evident in gubernatorial elections. Even in 2002, when Republican Bob Ehrlich stunned the political world by upsetting Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), he was unable to improve on Sauerbrey’s showing in Montgomery County when it came to percent of the vote. Four years later, Ehrlich took just 37 percent in Montgomery while losing narrowly to Martin O’Malley (D) statewide. In their 2010 rematch, Ehrlich – even with a running mate from Montgomery County, Mary Kane – plummeted to 31 percent of the vote there. Ehrlich got 89,108 votes in Montgomery in 2010, the first time in 20 years a GOP gubernatorial nominee dropped below 100,000 votes in the county.

Let’s look at some more numbers: In January 2000, the earliest month for which statistics are available online, Montgomery County had 123,424 registered Republicans, more than any other jurisdiction in the state. Baltimore County was next, with 106,659 enrolled Republicans, and Anne Arundel County had a GOP enrollment of 96,134.

Montgomery County had 228,036 registered Democrats then, but it was fourth in the state, behind Baltimore city (250,193), Prince George’s County (244,985) and Baltimore County (239,802). In January 2000, Montgomery had 75,595 unaffiliated voters, and 316 registered Libertarians. The Green Party was not officially recognized by the state then.

In September 2013, Montgomery had 350,283 registered Democrats, 144,036 unaffiliated voters, 123,470 registered Republicans, 1,951 Libertarians, and 1,504 Green Party members.

In those 13-plus years, Democratic registration in Montgomery went up by 122,000. The number of unaffiliated voters almost doubled. Libertarians picked up 1,625 more registered voters, and 1,504 people decided to register as Greens. And Republicans? They added just 46 more voters to their rolls in Montgomery County over 13 years.

Today, Baltimore County (131,442) and Anne Arundel (124,622) have more registered Republicans than Montgomery County does. And Montgomery is No. 2 in the state in enrolled Democrats, behind only Prince George’s (447,896) and ahead of the city (297,506) and Baltimore County (296,624).

So given these dismal trends for the GOP, is it any wonder that David Craig isn’t spending much time in Montgomery County? And does anyone expect him or whomever gets the Republican nomination to do any better in the county in 2014 than Ehrlich did four years earlier, when two of the possible Democratic nominees live in the county and the third is bidding to make history as the state’s first African-American governor?

2014 could be a very bad year for Democrats nationally, especially if Obamacare isn’t fixed soon; it’s a “six-year itch” election as it is. But 2010 was also a very bad year, and Democrats – in Maryland and especially in Montgomery County – seemed immune. And so far, it sure doesn’t seem like Maryland’s Republicans have found any kind of a formula to break that immunity – either in 2014 or in the next several election cycles.

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

Rate this blog entry:

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.