Guest column: Democrats in a daze — again: The election’s implications for Maryland in 2018

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics for years for the Gazette and then for Center Maryland. He’s currently raising money to launch Maryland Matters, a news website like MarylandReporter.com. (More on that at the bottom of this column)

Both sites are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News dedicated to finding sustainable models for news coverage in an era of shrinking newsrooms. Since Josh is without a home for his columns at the moment, we offered to publish this typically long one with some interesting insights on 2018 that he posted on Facebook. We don’t publish it because we agree with everything he says, but because it adds to the intelligent conversation about state government and politics we all need more of.  

By Josh Kurtz

MarylandMatters.org

A critical election has just ended, and Democrats are walking around in a daze.

The pre-Election Day polls were close, but Democrats were confident they were going to win. In fact, they couldn’t really imagine losing.

They had demographics and recent electoral history on their side. And Republicans had nominated a glib, rich businessman with no governing experience and a simplistic, digestible agenda that did not seem to match the needs of our modern times or the increasingly polyglot population.

But instead, the voters delivered a stunning rebuke. They wanted change, not more of the same. The results were close – but decisive.

It turned out that the Democratic nominee, who was poised to make history, didn’t really inspire anyone. The Democrat had been next in line, had been striving for the top job for years and felt entitled to it.

The Democrats had built an impressive fundraising machine, but didn’t offer any rationale for people to vote for them – just scare tactics about what would happen if the Republican won. The Democratic base quite obviously didn’t turn out as forcefully as it needed to – and as it had in recent elections.

What’s worse, the Democrats slipped in critical battlegrounds where they once thrived, and there’s evidence that some of these jurisdictions – and some of the core voters in them, especially working-class and middle-class white people – may be lost to the party indefinitely. To these particular voters, the Democrats, more than ever, seemed indifferent and out of touch, bordering on hostile.

So the Democrats are forced to wonder what went wrong and how to pick up the pieces. With no obvious, charismatic figure waiting in the wings to galvanize their voters, the party will rely for a while on senior legislative leaders, who have stubbornly held on to their offices for decades and don’t seem to fully comprehend what has just happened, to serve as a counterpoint to the Republican victor.

2016 parallels 2014 in Maryland

Yep, November 2016 is feeling pretty bleak for Democrats.

But what I’m also describing here is November 2014 in Maryland. Just substitute Donald Trump for Larry Hogan, and Hillary Clinton for Anthony Brown. Then the parallels, if you’re a Democrat, become distressingly stark.

There is little evidence that two years after their unanticipated wipeout, Maryland Democrats are any closer to solving their problems – or winning back turf that they lost in 2014.

Democrats are crowing that the four candidates that Hogan endorsed this fall lost badly. That hardly seems to matter for 2018. Democrats are about to embark on a search for a new state party chairman – again.

Republicans gleefully point out that the Democratic candidates for federal offices in Maryland saw their vote percentages drop slightly from 2012, the last presidential year. But that hardly seems to matter for 2018, either. The state GOP, too, is looking for new leadership – and much as they rail against gerrymandering, Republicans aren’t any closer to solving the riddle of federal elections in Maryland.

Ironically, Democrats’ misery at the national level – and specifically, Trump’s victory – could provide an unexpected lifeline to Maryland Democrats. Certainly the terrain in Maryland for 2018 has shifted in the past week. The question is, how much? And does Hogan, who seemed on the glide path to a second term before Election Day, have to begin sweating a bit?

Trump may not be good for Hogan

Hogan, who mentions his high poll ratings incessantly at every public appearance, may not think so. He has masterfully built a brand separate and distinct from party politics, and artfully managed to distance himself from Trump during the election.

But the words “President Donald Trump” cannot make blue state Republicans like Hogan too happy.

Hogan and Maryland Republicans – like so many other political professionals – assumed Clinton would be president, all but guaranteeing that 2018 would be a big Republican year nationally, with residual benefits in Maryland. The party in the White House almost always struggles in off-year elections.

Instead, Republicans will control all the levers of power in Washington, D.C. – in addition to two-thirds of the nation’s gubernatorial seats and an overwhelming majority of state legislatures. If the mercurial American electorate is looking for change in 2018, as it almost certainly will, the Democrats will surely be the beneficiaries.

And then there’s Trump himself. He has conducted himself fairly soberly so far in the wake of the election. But surely he will not be able to control himself forever. Republican elected officials like Hogan will be asked about every Trump outburst, every crazy statement he makes, every provocation, every concession to the extremist policies emanating from Capitol Hill.

You think Hogan became churlish when asked about Trump during the campaign? Just wait.

Bipartisan on his own terms

Hogan likes to say that he’s bipartisan – but except for his bromance with Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), a marriage of convenience and mutual self-interest based on their shared antipathy for entrenched Democratic leaders in Annapolis, there’s not much evidence of it. Hogan is quick, almost eager, to bash Democrats and their allied interest groups (like teachers’ unions) when their arguments do not align with his. When he says he’s bipartisan, he really means he believes in bipartisanship on his terms.

Hogan assumed that Trump would lose to Clinton, and he hoped to inject himself further into the national conversation in the aftermath. He felt he had something to teach the national GOP about appealing to voters in a blue state.

But now national Republicans are uninterested in listening – and are eager to push through a right-wing agenda.

No matter how hard he tries, Hogan will not be able to erase the R that will follow his name on the 2018 ballot. As if we needed any reminding, Hogan spent the early part of this week in Orlando, Fla., with his fellow Republican governors, listening in rapt attention to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who once said he’d “like to send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history;” signed a law allowing Indiana businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples on religious grounds; slashed funding for Planned Parenthood, and, as a member of Congress, tried to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

Fellow Republican governors

While in Orlando, Hogan is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who suggested in September that an armed insurrection might be in order if Hillary Clinton was elected president; with Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), famous for his racist rants about phantom out-of-state drug dealers who impregnate white girls; with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the scourge of organized labor; with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), whose slavish devotion to trickle-down economics has ruined the state economy and obliterated the social safety net; with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), whose administration prevented state agencies from using the words “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications; and with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who faces impeachment proceedings for an alleged affair with a top staffer.

Only by the standards of the modern Republican Party, the GOP of the tea party and Trump, is Hogan a moderate. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that he was proudly calling himself a Ronald Reagan conservative. It is going to be that much harder, with Republicans so firmly in control of this country, for Hogan to distance himself from his party.

And in 2018, presumably, Hogan will be facing a fired-up Democratic electorate. Democrats may feel OK about Hogan generally, but if they are angry about the GOP agenda in Washington, they will want to punish someone in two years – and Hogan could be the victim. If Clinton were president, Democrats might feel a little more sanguine about keeping Hogan around.

Democrats must offer something and someone

Of course, to win in 2018, Maryland Democrats have to offer voters something to get excited about, and here the shifting terrain once again accrues to their benefit. Labor Secretary Tom Perez is not going to be Hillary Clinton’s attorney general; he could well run for governor. Rep. Elijah Cummings is not going to be chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Lots of fellow Democrats are urging him to run for governor.

Perez or Cummings could galvanize Democrats and progressive activists in ways that the current crop of potential candidates for governor, like Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, and Congressman John Delaney, might not.

But none of those three should be counted out, either: Each now has a better chance of becoming governor than he did 10 days ago – and each now will need to up his game and craft a compelling message for our newly perilous times.

From Josh Kurtz’s Facebook posting: As some of you know, I am working with a group of folks to try to start Maryland Matters, an online news service offering full coverage of Maryland government and business. We’ve set up a nonprofit to make this happen, through the good offices of the Community Foundation for the National Capitol Region, and we are now accepting tax deductible contributions. We have a challenge grant of $250,000, which will become available to us after we raise $250,000.

If you believe in fiercely independent, non-partisan news coverage of our important institutions, which aren’t getting much scrutiny these days, then I urge you to consider a donation to the Maryland Matters Fund. Thanks to the challenge grant, your contribution is essentially worth double.

If you have questions about our effort, feel free to give me a call at 202-419-9119, or drop me a line. You can make secure, online donations here: https://cfncr.wufoo.com/forms/the-maryland-matters-fund

 

  • One of the biggest reasons, I think, that Nov. 2016 for Trump feels so much like Nov. 2014 for Brown is that both candidates simply assumed (incorrectly) that demographic analysis was correct. Now, it is true that the US is becoming more diverse, and those votes tend to go to the Democrat, but the popular vote notwithstanding, you can’t lose as badly as she did in Republican strongholds and still come out on top overall. And while Donald Trump lost in Maryland, he showed up here a few times in order to minimize losses and show that he still had Maryland in mind during the campaign. Relying on demographic information, which Democrats have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and built tremendous think tanks to gather and analyze, Hillary Clinton didn’t spend one day after the convention in Wisconsin, for instance. Likewise, Brown said nothing to appeal to the people who were supposed to be his firmest support. I think a deeper analysis will reveal that Democrats have adopted a posture of sitting in an ivory tower analyzing demographics data, which looks promising, and forgetting to appeal to the people in the states, including Maryland.

  • higgy01

    Cummings and Perez, there is a pair of losers if I ever saw some. Perez, when part of the O’Malley disaster sent our tax money on a criminal organization called casa de Maryland that protected illegal aliens to the point of producing a manual we paid for on how to avoid law enforcement and deportation. Cummings is nothing but a lemming that does nothing but disrupt anything anyone tries to do if they don’t have a “D” by their name. He is a political bigot.

    • Bohsandos2015

      Namecalling. So mature of you.

  • mikegorman

    Read the article very carefully. It however seems like a push for another news organization that is very political and very dependent. There were many profoundly false assumptions. I called Josh at his “202” phone number and left this same message.

    • mikegorman

      Oh… If that implied that Maryland Reporter was the first such political an dependent organization, that certainly is NOT true. They are a straight news reporting organization that’s clearly needed in Maryland given the comPost and the Baltimore Sun.

    • Johnny

      Care to expand on what you thought were false assumptions?

  • Johnny

    I think Democrats with eyes on the Governor’s Mansion are less in a daze and more excited. They are counting on everything you mentioned about the lifeline they’ve just been extended with Trump’s win, and what it means for Hogan. However, it cannot be overstated that they need to run on actual issues, which will be harder to do. Hogan is popular, he is bipartisan (on his terms maybe, which is better than not at all), he is moderate by anyone’s standards, and he’s likable. Maryland Democrats have already gone to ridiculous lengths to try and tie Hogan to Trump (see anything Barry Rascovar has written about him in the last year), but I would like to think that this cannot be the crux of their platform to unseat him. Hogan should continue to pragmatically govern the state, keeping his distance from the GOP nationally, and he should be fine. Marylanders remember O’Malley, and the Maryland Democratic Party still has to overcome the perception of damage that he did to the state. I don’t see any of the democratic candidates listed as being a threat.

    Overall I think you wrote a great article. The only point you made that was way out in left field is the charge that Hogan is only a moderate by national GOP standards. Are you crazy? What has he done to make you think that? He campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism, and hasn’t touched social issues. He has even worked with Dems on some environmental issues that no national Republican would dare do. Hogan is a moderate Republican. Period.

    Good luck with Maryland Matters.

  • jd

    Cummings for governor? Dear Lord no. Just look at the shape of his gerrymandered district, it’s like a map of his career. The northern half looks like the head of an attack dog, the southern looks like Baltimore got shot in the chest and bled out into the counties. Dial up any video of EC speaking and prepare to be befuddled. And Perez, why not nominate Gustavo Torres and skip the middle hombre?

  • Bohsandos2015

    When was the last time the same party continued in the White House after 8 years? George H. W. Bush, and before that…? Does history really fly in the face of a Republican presidential win in 2016?