Josh Kurtz: Nightmare Scenario

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Immediately after a statewide election, the annual J. Millard Tawes crab feast in Crisfield doesn’t take on the political magnitude it does most other years.

Sure, pols still show up – mostly to gossip among themselves. But the crowds are down – from 8,500 in 2010 to about 4,500 last week, according to media accounts. Festival-goers are relieved not to be assaulted by glad-handing candidates as they attempt to juggle their cardboard boxes of all-you-can-eat seafood and their slippery beer mugs. The primary Baltimore Sun account of the event was about a fad diet, not politics (go figure).

Still, a glimmer of the campaigns to come can be found. Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), one of the gubernatorial frontrunners for 2014, was making the rounds. So was Harford County Executive David Craig (R), a likely candidate for governor or some other statewide office (newly printed “Craig 2014” signs adorned some of the tents).

Daniel Bongino, the former Secret Service agent who wants to oust Sen. Ben Cardin (D), was there. So was Republican idea man Larry Hogan, who is always a threat to run for something. And so was Congressman-in-Exile Frank Kratovil (D), who looked awfully tan – which would surely not be the case if he were still serving on Capitol Hill.

The presence of these and many other pols may not have registered with the overwhelming majority of the crowd. But it was enough to get the well-oiled tongues of the insiders wagging.

Yet beneath the happy surface lurked one serious bummer.

It is widely assumed in Maryland political precincts that 2014 is shaping up to be a big turnover year, the way 1986 and 2006 were. After all, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is term limited, and Franchot, Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) are lining up to succeed him. That creates vacancies for AG, comptroller and of course, lieutenant governor. A few county executives besides Ulman are certain to move on as well.

As a result, political hearts are fluttering from Oakland to Pocomoke City, as wannabes ponder a host of scenarios and think, “Why not me?”

But one simple development could spoil the whole party.

What if O’Malley doesn’t complete his term? What if he’s offered a chance to serve in the Obama administration, assuming the president wins a second term (no safe assumption at this point)? What if there’s another enticing opportunity out there for O’Malley that no one is even thinking about right now?

Suddenly 2014 is looking a whole lot different. What if, after all the plotting and dreaming, it’s a status quo election after all?

Could it happen? And would O’Malley seize the opportunity to flee Annapolis and go national? The answer to the first question is maybe. The answer to the second is, why not?

O’Malley, recall, did not endorse Barack Obama for president at the outset of 2008. He did the safe, predictable thing and cast his lot with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. So that’s a strike against O’Malley when it comes to joining the Obama cabinet or taking another high-profile position inside or outside of government.

But O’Malley has shown unwavering loyalty to the president ever since, and because Maryland, being so close to the White House, is often used as a backdrop for presidential appearances, the two men have had an opportunity to get to know each other. Obama is sure to shake up his cabinet if he’s re-elected. O’Malley could well be a contender for any number of positions.

If you accept the conventional wisdom that O’Malley wants to run for president in 2016, which provides a better launching pad – three more years in Annapolis, or a post in the national administration? Ordinarily you’d say the former. With the rare exception, like Hillary Clinton, cabinet secretaries live fairly unglamorous, anonymous lives, except when their agencies screw up in a big way. (If anyone has seen Labor Secretary Hilda Solis lately, it’s probably been on a milk carton along with other missing persons.)

But what awaits O’Malley in three more years in Annapolis? More austerity, more petty squabbles, more special interests lining up against him. He announced last week that he’ll sponsor gay marriage legislation in 2012 – but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a potential White House rival in 2016, has already trumped him there. What can O’Malley do, over the next three years, in a Democratic stronghold that never matters in presidential elections, to distinguish himself on the national level?

O’Malley is going to begin the 2016 White House election behind Cuomo and Clinton (despite her protestations that she will never run for public office again) and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner at the very least. Maybe a cabinet post or some other high-profile job, if played right, is a better bet for keeping himself in the national spotlight than serving as governor of Maryland.

If that happens, Armageddon! Pols from one end of the state to the other will have to take a series of cold showers. If that happens, Anthony Brown becomes governor – and are Franchot, Gansler, Ulman et al going to have the audacity to take on the state’s first African-American governor in a Democratic primary?

They may still be itching to do so. And you wouldn’t put it completely past them. After all, Harry Hughes and Ted Venetoulis didn’t hesitate to challenge acting Gov. Blair Lee in the 1978 Democratic primary. But it’s still kind of hard to imagine. After all, those were white guys running against a white guy. The racial dynamic changes everything.

What do Gansler, Franchot and Ulman do, then? What about all the people gearing up to succeed them (though term limits prevent Ulman from seeking a third term)? And all the people gearing up to succeed the would-be attorneys general, comptrollers and Howard County executives?

It’s amazing to contemplate how one simple development – hypothetical, to be sure, and probably a long shot – could dramatically alter the state’s political narrative over the next several years.

Whether it happens or not, the crowds are sure to grow at the Tawes crab feasts in 2012, 2013 and 2014. But if it does happen, pols there will spend a lot less time greeting the voters and a lot more time crying in their beer.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation

A Triple Play of Political Shame – An Indictment of the Ehrlich Campaign, Maryland’s Fumble on Gay Marriage, and the Prince George’s Ethical Saga

White Prince George's

A DREAM Denied?

Frack This!

The Undercard

Talking Union Blues

The Peter Principle

Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map

Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal
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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.