Laslo Boyd: Mission Impossible Accomplished

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By: Laslo Boyd 

If you’re feeling sorry for Anthony Brown this morning, you should probably find something else to read. The Lieutenant Governor ran an historically inept campaign and lost a race that should have been impossible to lose. Moreover, in falling by around 80,000 votes to Larry Hogan, Brown managed to take down a number of Democrats around the state who would have won with even a modest amount of help from the top of the ticket.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be more numbers to assess and more interpretations offered of how this shocker occurred. However, even with just a few hours of reflection, it’s not hard to identify the roots of the 2014 debacle.

First, Larry Hogan, the now Governor-Elect, deserves credit for running a smart and focused campaign. He kept pounding away at the sluggish economy and the many tax increases under the O’Malley-Brown Administration. He avoided the controversial social issues that might have sunk him with those Democratic voters to whom he was appealing. Moreover, his lack of specificity about what he would do as governor made him an elusive target.

Then there’s the Obama factor that was so prominent in elections all over the country and resulted directly in Republicans gaining control of the U.S. Senate. The President, Tuesday’s election demonstrates, is widely unpopular across a large spectrum of the electorate. His participation in 2010 helped Martin O’Malley, but was of no help to anyone in Maryland in 2014.

Nevertheless, with a 2-to-1 party registration advantage and a long history of electing Democrats to statewide office, Maryland should still have been an easy state for Anthony Brown to win on Tuesday. There are at least three overarching factors that contributed to his stunning defeat.

First, Brown and his inner circle ran a dreadful campaign. Actually, they ran two dreadful campaigns if you also include the primary. He kept making the same mistakes and never made any serious adjustments.

Columnists and pundits are justly criticized for often getting it wrong, but in the case of Brown’s campaign, they had it right. There was a steady stream of commentary about how the candidate was hidden away from the public and the press. Brown didn’t effectively tell his story, didn’t show himself to be anything other than a wind-up candidate brought out from time to time to deliver set speeches.

Brown rarely looked comfortable or confident. He did, however, often manage to convey a sense of overconfidence as when he observed after the primary that there was still the “molehill” of a General Election to deal with.

His “brilliant” campaign consultants showed themselves to be one-trick ponies who only knew how to do negative ads. That decision was a strategic blunder of the first order. How bad? In this General Election, 200,000 fewer voters showed up at the polls than had in 2010.  That’s a lot of disgusted former voters.

Moreover, in seeking to portray Hogan as a “dangerous” candidate, they suffered from the fact that he never looked or sounded dangerous. You wonder how those national consultants will list this campaign on their resumes as they move on to “help” some other candidate in a faraway state.

A second fundamental problem for Brown’s campaign was that the candidate did not appear to have the qualifications needed to be governor. The job of Lieutenant Governor has never been a stepping stone and Brown’s effort showed why it has not served that function.

Rather than addressing his role in the troubled health care web site early and decisively, he spent months ducking and hiding. Brown had made the problem worse for himself by initially claiming that he was the state’s point person on health care reform and later seeking to distance himself from it.

Beyond that job, it was never clear during the entire campaign what Brown had actually done as Lieutenant Governor. That’s partly the fault of the job, which is to do whatever the governor tells you to do while making sure you don’t get too much credit or attention. Brown at times leaned heavily on his military service but never made a convincing case for why that qualified him to be governor.

At the end of the day, Brown’s campaign seemed to be largely about him being next in line and that he would be the first African-American governor of Maryland. He managed to take those issues and turn them into an attitude of entitlement on his part.

If we dig a little deeper, we arrive at the root problem of the Brown candidacy. While Brown was not an inspiring candidate and his campaign operation was inept, the real problem is that the Democratic leadership of Maryland decided long ago to hand the nomination to Anthony Brown. Once the top officials anointed Brown, almost every other elected Democrat dutifully fell into line.

Crowning a governor-in-waiting didn’t work the last time it was tried, in 2002, and was a total failure again this year. Brown was never seriously vetted, never challenged in the primary and, as a result, came into the General Election with deep flaws that were open to exploitation by the Hogan campaign.

The outcome of the 2014 General Election changes the political landscape of Maryland in profound ways.  Democrats who seem to have assumed that they would always win elections automatically have suffered a rude awakening. Republicans who have often looked lost and disorganized won the top office as well as County Executive seats in Anne Arundel, Harford, and Howard Counties. Democratic losses in the House of Delegates will require significant shuffling by Speaker Mike Busch.

Martin O’Malley is one of the big losers from Tuesday’s election. His unpopularity seemed to drive a lot of the voting. His hand-picked successor lost. Rather than adding to his resume as a presidential candidate, Brown’s defeat leaves O’Malley damaged just as the national picture has gotten more complicated for Democrats.

Did any Democrats come out of Tuesday ahead? For one, Brian Frosh’s big win in the race for Attorney General brings a strong new voice for progressive values to a statewide office. Peter Franchot cruised to victory in his re-election bid as comptroller and looks at the moment to be the top Democrat in Maryland. His role on the Board of Public Works will be even more interesting to watch in a Hogan administration. Incumbent county executives in Baltimore, Montgomery, and Prince George’s Counties all won re-election easily and may soon be thinking about 2018.

And Kathleen Kennedy Townsend can at last surrender the title of having run the worst Democratic statewide campaign for governor.

Finally, we can all start speculating about what Larry Hogan will do as governor. His campaign was incredibly short on specifics and he faces some daunting challenges, including a tough state fiscal climate. On the other hand, his impressive win should give him a good supply of political capital as he starts a new phase in Maryland government.

I look forward to writing about Larry Hogan’s efforts to govern in concert with a Democratic majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. Sounds like an endless source of material.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.