Richard Cross, III: What if They Held a Primary Election and No One Cared?

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Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, lots of things are happening now that campaign 2016 is here.

Now that the immediate focus has turned to South Carolina, the battle for the GOP presidential nomination has devolved into new levels of nastiness, vitriol, and surrealism.  Perception-wise, it’s The Bully (Donald Trump) versus Green Acres (Ted Cruz) versus The Suits (Jeb Bush and John Kasich) versus The Boy (Marco Rubio) versus Mr. “Why am I Still Running?” (Ben Carson).

The line separating political campaigns and reality television may have finally been breached.  What does it say when SNL skits are now only slightly less amusing and absurdist than actual events?

As for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is forced to watch Senator Bernie Sanders morph from obscure backbencher into socialist savior.  

Nomination-wise, I still think Clinton will carry the day.  In the meantime, the contest reminds me of a Victorian novel in which Sanders plays the pious Van Helsing – like nemesis to Clinton and her transactional brand of corrupt, big donor politics.

And, of course, as all that unfolds, control of the U. S. Senate is in play, as is the ideological balance on the Supreme Court.

Here in Maryland, lots of things are going on, too.

One of the state’s U. S. Senate seats is open – a rare phenomenon in state politics.  

In my hometown of Baltimore, witness to so much strife and unwanted national attention in 2015, we are looking to elect a new mayor and replace six retiring members of the City Council.

Everything happening in Maryland on the political front is important. However, given the choices, circumstances, and stakes facing state voters on primary election day April 26th, neither of these contests presently seems as interesting as they ought to be.

When Senator Mikulski announced she was retiring last March, political observers like me predicted that the race would be a battle royal.  Indeed, Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards soon jumped into the race, as did a flurry of interesting GOP candidates.

Then a curious thing did happen…no one else did.  To paraphrase Hedley Lamar in Blazing Saddles, candidates stayed away in droves.

I can remember 1986 – the year then-Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski threw her hat into the ring for the seat being vacated by Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias.  At one point, her opponents included a member of Congress, a retiring Maryland governor, and a popular Baltimore County executive.   

This year, however, many logical contestants for the seat, including Reps. John Sarbanes, Dutch Ruppersberger, and Elijah Cummings, decided to pass. So did former Governor Martin O’Malley, who opted to wage a quixotic quest for the White House instead.

As a result, the race has settled into a competitive contest between two products of Maryland’s Washington suburbs. According to the latest Gonzales poll, establishmentarian Van Hollen has a slight 38 – 36 percent edge over renegade Edwards.  

Still, the Van Hollen - Edwards race has not yet reached the level of engagement among state voters as often been the case during past Senate contests.

Perhaps the late primary election, or a lack of geographic diversity among candidates, or a general sense of political disaffection among Marylanders, are among the reasons.   

Similarly, one can argue that picking Baltimore’s next mayor is the most important decision City voters have faced in a generation.  The more than two dozen experienced and neophyte candidates running are certainly engaged in the race, as evidenced by campaign ads, social media, debates, and other evidence of the usual politicking.

Being a resident of Fells Point on the City’s east side, however, I have not yet seen nor sensed any palpable evidence that voters themselves yet care about or are closely following the mayoral race.

Crime has spiked in my usually peaceful neighborhood in recent weeks, so this apparent disengagement certainly troubles me on a personal level.

Of course, as the primary nears and events unfold, things may change.

Or, perhaps things won’t change if people assume former Mayor Sheila Dixon is a dead lock cinch to win anyway.

Further, if one accepts the belief that Hillary Clinton will capture the Democratic presidential nomination long before the presidential contest comes to Maryland, City voters may not bother participating when the outcomes of most of the interesting political contests seem preordained.

Have Maryland voters sworn off politics this year?

Competitive races for Congress are underway in races for the DC-based 4th and 8th District Congressional seats, where the incumbents are running for the aforementioned Senate seat. The race for the 6th District, which GOP nominee Dan Bongino narrowly lost to Rep. John Delaney in 2014, is getting interesting as well.

But overall, interest in campaign 2016 still seems dormant.

For most people, voting in primary elections is a tough sell, anyway.  I get it. Even the comedic spectacle that is the 2016 presidential primary election can’t fix that.

I decided to change my registration back to Republican after switching to “unaffiliated” back in 2014, for reasons I explained in the Baltimore Sun. Despite the campaign’s amusing moments, the apparent nativist direction of the GOP at the national level worries me.

People don’t have to love politics like I do. But more people need to step up and become engaged in some of the critical primary races that will be decided in April.

Politics can be funny at times. But elections, and their outcomes, are no joke.

Richard J. Cross III, a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter, resides in Baltimore, and can be reached at .

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