Laslo Boyd: Should Maryland Democrats Be Worried?

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By: Laslo Boyd 

When you are defeated in a contest you were heavily favored to win, there’s a great temptation to explain away the loss as an aberration, a one-time confluence of factors that is unlikely to occur again. You look back and identify a crucial mistake or two that you certainly will not repeat. You’ve not so much learned your lesson as concluded that things will get back to normal next time.

If Maryland Democrats reflect on this year’s election debacle employing that approach, it will be a bigger mistake than the ones that were made in the election itself. Using red or blue to color the political maps creates the illusion of much more uniformity than actually exists. There are, in fact, Democrats in Kansas and, as November 4th dramatically demonstrated, Republicans in Maryland. And more to the point, there are plenty of voters, regardless of party identification, prepared to support Republican candidates under the right circumstances.

For Democratic Party leaders, the challenge will be to identify the factors that led to Anthony Brown’s unexpected rout by Larry Hogan. And then they will need to figure out whether they were unique to 2014 or represented new structural realities of the Maryland political landscape.

The “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” caucus might conclude that Anthony Brown was a particularly ineffective candidate who ran a dreadful campaign. They would be right on both scores. But they would have missed the point if they stopped there and didn’t dig deeper.

How did the Democrats end up with Anthony Brown as their standard bearer? The early closing of ranks behind the Lieutenant Governor, well before he had been tested or his record and qualifications carefully examined, was an avoidable error.  It was, however, the exact same mistake that was made in 2002.

When I talked to Democratic insiders well before the Primary and asked why they were supporting Brown, the answer usually was some form of “Look at the voting demographics of Democratic Primary elections.” That is, they supported him because his win in the Primary seemed inevitable. Apparently, many Democrats forgot that the State also holds a General Election.

That line of thinking suggests that arrogance and complacency were major contributors to the Election outcome. While nominating a better candidate the next time will be essential, that won’t by itself totally solve the Democrats’ problem.

With real justification, Brown’s national political consultants have been widely criticized for their approach to the campaign. Their generic, off-the-shelf strategy of focusing on hot button social issues and negative ads was a disaster. What they totally failed to do was connect with voters on their concerns, particularly with respect to the economy. Another example of arrogance and taking voters for granted.

Addressing that problem is more complicated than merely finding different consultants to hire. A number of Democrats around the country used the same campaign playbook that Brown did, which raises questions about the party’s national campaign infrastructure. Democrats this year were often fighting the last “cultural” war while Republicans did a much better job of staying focused on economic issues.

A number of commentators, including me, have mentioned the continued decline in voter turnout, particularly in the most heavily Democratic jurisdictions. Part of the explanation for the low turnout is a long history of one-party domination and the lack of competitive races for other offices in those areas. The problem is deeper than that however.

Democratic voters have increasingly ignored off-year elections and only turned out in large number in presidential years. That’s an unsustainable model for a party that wants to be competitive. There’s been a lot of discussion of how the shifting national demographics favor Democrats in presidential elections. That perspective has contributed to complacency and indifference to state and local elections that are for too many Democrats seen as not particularly important.

Even as there are more citizens on the Maryland voter rolls, there was a drop in turnout from 2010 to 2014, and both years saw significantly fewer voters than in 2008 and 2012. Assuming that more voters will show up in 2016 does not constitute a viable strategy for the Maryland Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Republicans have an opportunity to build a genuine two-party system in the state, but only if they focus on results rather than ideology. If Larry Hogan tries to govern as a pragmatist focused on improving the economy, it will create a real dilemma for the General Assembly leadership.

Do Mike Miller and Mike Busch work to ensure that Larry Hogan is a one-term governor? Democrats are understandably furious at Mitch McConnell for deciding even before Barack Obama was inaugurated that he would do everything possible to make his presidency a failure. Miller and Busch are unlikely to start with the McConnell approach, but instead will give Hogan a chance to demonstrate what kind of governor he intends to be.

As devastating as Brown’s loss of the State House was for Democrats, Republican wins for County Executive in Anne Arundel, Harford, and Howard Counties may be even more significant in the long run. For the first time in recent history, Republicans may have a bench of candidates for future statewide races. Along with the party’s success in the Eastern part of Baltimore County and its long-time domination in the less populated areas of the state, Republicans have an opportunity to be competitive in a way that they have only dreamed of in the past.

Democrats, if they are smart, will engage in some major re-evaluation of their approach to the voters and will work on rebuilding their party structure. They certainly won’t lack for prospective gubernatorial candidates in 2018. I can readily think of at least eight possibilities and I suspect your list is different than mine.

While guarding the gains that the Democratic Party has made on such central issues as abortion rights, marriage equality, and gun regulations, Democrats will have to pay much more attention to economic issues and business climate than they have in the past. Hogan said during the campaign that he would leave those social issue policies in place, but he will undoubtedly come under pressure from some segments of his party to take actions to assuage the traditional Republican base.

The failure to turn out voters this year compares badly with the success achieved by the Maryland Democratic Party’s campaigns in support of Barak Obama. It doesn’t look like there are very effective local Democratic organizations in place. One step the Party should take soon is to convince someone like Jason Waskey or Len Foxwell to rebuild the party organization.

To come full circle, Democrats should be worried, but they shouldn’t panic. The Democratic Party has lots of resources if it uses them smartly and pays more attention to the details than it did in 2014. Politics in Maryland is more fluid today, which provides both risks and opportunities. Both parties seem prepared to engage in that new environment.

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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.