Josh Kurtz: The Maryland Republican to Watch (Plus Tidbits)

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Larry Hogan will become just Maryland’s second Republican governor since 1969 when he takes office in a couple of weeks. The state GOP has its most formidable bench in years with savvy new county executives like Allan Kittleman, Steve Schuh and Barry Glassman. Congressman Andy Harris (R) is gaining power and influence on Capitol Hill – and flexed his muscles like never before in local and legislative elections in 2014.

But the Maryland Republican with the brightest political future may be Alex Mooney.

Mooney, of course, no longer resides in our state. He migrated across the border a couple of years ago to Charles Town, W.Va., in search, he says, of political freedom – an act he compares to his mother’s family emigrating from Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1960’s.

It sounds kitschy, but that hardly matters. Today Mooney will be sworn in as the new member of Congress representing West Virginia’s 2nd District, which takes in the state capital of Charleston, Martinsburg, and the eastern panhandle.

This may just be the beginning for Mooney, who is only 43 years old. It is probably frightening for Maryland Democrats and the other enemies Mooney left behind to contemplate, but it would not be surprising to see him run for – and win – a Senate seat soon.

You read it here first – U.S. Sen. Alex Mooney. Robert Byrd was elected to represent West Virginia in the Senate when he was 40, and served until he died at age 92.  Jay Rockefeller became the Mountain State’s junior senator at the age of 47 and is retiring today at age 77.

So Mooney, if elected to the Senate, could have a very long tenure. What’s more, as a half-Hispanic conservative with Florida roots representing a coal- and natural gas-producing state, Mooney could be a very appealing running mate to a Republican presidential nominee in the not-too-distant future.

How did we get to this place? And what is Mooney’s path to glory?

He has always been a controversial and mercurial figure, dating back to the 1998 Republican primary, when he ousted the pipe-smoking gentleman Frederick Sen. Jack Derr (R). Mooney did not come to Annapolis with the typical freshman’s agenda. Trained on Capitol Hill and with national right-wing groups, he wanted to be a bomb-thrower from the start, and by that standard he largely succeeded.

But his act wore thin back home after a dozen years, and Democrat Ron Young defeated him in 2010, even though it was a Republican year. Mooney’s odyssey then took him to a less-than-stellar tenure as chairman of the Maryland GOP, an aborted run for Congress when it briefly appeared Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) would not be seeking reelection in 2012, and then the short but symbolic journey to West Virginia.

In both the Republican primary and in the general election last year, Mooney’s opponents tried to portray him as a carpet bagger. But it didn’t work. Mooney is a tough campaigner and an expert fundraiser – he spent almost $2 million on his 2014 campaign, a sum that goes an awfully long way in West Virginia. And the state has elected carpet baggers before; Rockefeller won a state House seat there in the mid-1960’s, two years after arriving as a VISTA volunteer.

Now Mooney is going to the House, where he’s sure to thrive. His sharp-elbowed style of politics is the norm on Capitol Hill, and the House GOP caucus has moved so far to the right that Mooney will be right there in the mainstream. He’s joining the Natural Resources Committee, where he can do the bidding of West Virginia’s energy producers, and the Budget Committee, where he can rail against federal spending – a potent combination for an ambitious Republican.

Mooney’s first chance to run for Senate comes in 2018, when Sen. Joe Manchin (D) is up for a full second term. Manchin, a former governor holding Byrd’s old seat, is frustrated on Capitol Hill and has discussed the possibility of leaving the Senate and trying to get his old job back in 2016, when current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) is term limited. If Manchin steps down, Mooney is almost certain to run for Senate; if Manchin runs for reelection, Mooney may run for his seat anyway.

West Virginia has gone through a stunning political transformation. As recently as 2000, every member of the state’s congressional delegation was a Democrat. And Democratic presidential nominees routinely won there – even Jimmy Carter in the Reagan landslide of 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 (when George Herbert Walker Bush prevailed in Maryland).

But Democrats haven’t carried West Virginia in a White House election since 1996. And Manchin, who often votes like a Republican, is the lone Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.

So why wouldn’t Mooney run for Senate? He might have company in the Republican primary, from the state’s two other congressmen, David McKinley and Evan Jenkins, or the state’s aggressive attorney general, Patrick Morrisey.

But McKinley is 67 and may not want to run for the Senate when he is 71. Jenkins knocked off 19-term Congressman Nick Rahall (D) in November, aided by mind-numbing sums of spending by outside groups, so he is a hero to Republicans. On the other hand, he is a two-time party switcher – a Republican as a young man, he became a Democrat to run for the state legislature, then switched back to the GOP to challenge Rahall. So someone like Mooney may be more palatable to Republican primary voters. As for Morrisey, he may prefer to run for governor in 2016.

For years, Alex Mooney was waiting for Roscoe Bartlett to retire and prepared to run for Congress in Maryland’s 6th District. But after John Delaney crushed Bartlett in 2012, Mooney decided to try his fortunes elsewhere – and Maryland Republicans never tried to stop him.

In November, Delaney defeated Republican Dan Bongino, himself a carpet bagger, and a political novice, by just 2,800 votes. Would a savvier campaigner like Mooney, and his access to national conservative money, have been able to derail Delaney’s political career? We’ll never know.

But one thing we do know: The House would have been Alex Mooney’s political ceiling if he had remained in Maryland; in West Virginia, it’s higher. It’s clear he’s never looking back.


Maryland on the Moshassuck

As the Republicans prepare to take over in Annapolis, at least two veterans of the outgoing O’Malley administration have landed top-tier positions with incoming Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D). Stephen Neuman, who most recently has worked as Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) director of public affairs, will become Raimondo’s chief of staff. And Scott Jensen, O’Malley’s acting Labor secretary, will take the same job in Rhode Island. Jensen is a former Easton city councilman and was once a top AFSCME official before taking a variety of roles at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.


Warren’s Maryland Cabal

Many Maryland Democrats are already lining up behind Hillary Clinton’s presumed presidential bid. Others are waiting to see whether O’Malley pulls the trigger on a White House campaign.

But a quartet of Maryland pols are lending their names to the host committee for a mid-January fundraiser in Washington, D.C., designed to encourage Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) to run for president. They are: Del. Shane Robinson (D), Dels.-elect David Moon (D) and Jimmy Tarlau (D) and Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich (D).

Whether Warren heeds the call is another matter entirely.


Follow me on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews
Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .
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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.