Josh Kurtz: The Known Unknowns

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Here’s a shocking piece of news: We’re already in the home stretch for the June 24 Maryland primary. The primary is just nine weeks from today; early voting begins in seven weeks.

How can that be possible when, in many ways, it feels as if the campaign hasn’t even begun yet? And what are the implications?

To mark the kick-off of the home stretch, the beginning of the end, we pose 10 questions about the primary that we’re calling “The Known Unknowns.” That’s a twist on the title of a new and damning documentary about Donald Rumsfeld called “The Unknown Known,” inspired by this outrageously obtuse comment he made in the run-up to the Iraq War: “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.”

To bring the point back home to Maryland, there are many factors that could affect the outcome of the fast-approaching primaries – we just don’t know exactly which will materialize or prove to be important:

What will voter turnout look like?

Who will be around on June 24? Schools will be out – even with all the snow days. But will our cities and towns empty out immediately? Likely not.

A bigger question is, how many people are even aware that there’s a primary going on? Will those voters who aren’t going to be in town on primary day bother to vote early or by absentee ballot?

There’s plenty of evidence that turnout is going to be shockingly low. Turnout in midterm election years is always a lot lower than it is in presidential years. Even in blue Maryland, even with a core of Democratic activists who have been inspired by Barack Obama, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in this election. You’d be hard-pressed to find a candidate at the statewide level – with the possible exception of Del. Heather Mizeur (D) – who has fired up anybody. And even though there are some good candidates farther down the ballot, most voters can’t be bothered getting to know them.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) would like to drive up African-American turnout – every TV ad he’s aired so far seems designed to remind voters that he’s black – but anyone expecting an Obama-like surge in black turnout will be sorely disappointed.

Will the sudden lifting of the cumulative campaign finance cap for donors change the trajectory of many races?

Chances are, donors who were going to max out to statewide candidates have already done so. But candidates for legislative or local offices, who might benefit from an infusion of hundred-dollar checks, could suddenly turn to donors who might otherwise be tapped out. Lobbyists, beware!

Is the Democratic primary for governor really tightening?

A new poll for Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), released last week, showed him trailing Brown by just 9 points, when all other polls have shown the lieutenant governor with a double-digit lead.

Gansler may well be closing the gap; his TV ads have been effective, and at the very least they’ve probably served to up his likeability numbers after an autumn of bad news. At the same time, the attacks from several different precincts on Brown’s stewardship of the state health care exchange are probably taking a toll on his numbers.

But comparing Gansler’s poll to the media polls that have come out before is comparing apples and oranges. Those surveys used different pollsters, methodologies and sets of questions. A truly valid measure of progress is whether Gansler’s standing has improved compared to previous polls his own campaign has taken; unless those are released, we’ll never know.

If other polls start to show Gansler trailing by single digits, then we can detect a trend. For what it’s worth, a poll put out by St. Mary’s College on Friday – which may have had flaws of its own – showed Brown with a 16-point lead.

Is there anything Harford County Executive David Craig, strapped for cash, can do to leapfrog businessman Larry Hogan in the Republican primary for governor, or is the notion that Hogan has the race won already baked?

And going forward, can Hogan convince voters that his election would be anything but a restoration of the Ehrlich era?

Will Democratic voters finally wake up to the fact that it’s not Ben Cardin who is running for attorney general?

Is there anything state Sen. Brian Frosh (D) or Del. Aisha Braveboy (D) can do, given the clutter of all the other races on the ballot, to overcome the advantages that Del. Jon Cardin (D) enjoys in the primary – short of changing their names to Mikulski?

Will Anne Arundel County Republicans short-circuit the career of one of the state GOP’s very few legitimate rising stars by picking Del. Steve Schuh over County Executive Laura Neuman in the primary?

Schuh has solid political chops – and may make a fine county executive. But it’s hard to see him having much crossover appeal, especially in a hypothetical future statewide race – and he’d probably have a tougher time than Neuman in the general election against the Democratic nominee for county executive, former Sheriff George Johnson.

Neuman seems to have far greater statewide potential if she wins reelection – but will party purists eager to label her as a RINO allow that to happen? Notice how aggressively the Ehrlich forces are going after her. Eight years after being driven from office, Bob and Kendel Ehrlich are still reluctant to yield their perch as the state’s leading GOP power couple.

Which state Senate Democrats are the most vulnerable in their primaries?

Alphabetically, Sens. Joanne Benson, Jim Brochin, Joan Carter Conway, Ulysses Currie, Rich Madaleno, Nathaniel McFadden and Anthony Muse face peril to one degree or another. Yes, McFadden belongs on this list, even with a very flawed challenger in Julius Henson – and even with Mike Miller’s formidable political operation on his side. (Sen. Verna Jones-Rowell would have been perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent on this list, but she announced on Monday that she is retiring from the Senate.)

When will the editorial boards of The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post begin doling out endorsements – and how many races will they actually get around to opining on?

You can expect both to weigh in on the gubernatorial primaries and the AG’s race, and the Anne Arundel GOP contest for exec, and the Post – and maybe even the Sun – will have something to say on the Democratic primary for Montgomery County executive.

The irony is, the editorial boards of those papers almost certainly have more influence over certain local races than they do in statewide contests. The Sun could make a real difference in Baltimore County, where Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D) is fending off a spirited challenge from lawyer and Planning Board member Jon Herbst, who appears to have the tacit blessing of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D). The paper could also be a difference-maker in the wide open House primary in Dist. 12, the Howard-Baltimore county race where about 600 Democrats are vying for three open seats. Just to name two.

The Post will no doubt continue its jihad against the Montgomery County Education Association, seeking to counter-balance the teachers’ union’s influence in several key races there – and wittingly or not, offering Democratic voters a clear-cut choice that they might not otherwise have just from sifting through the mountains of campaign propaganda now landing in their mailboxes.

Now that Del. Bill Frick (D) has decided to seek reelection instead of running for attorney general, how does the crowded Bethesda-area Dist. 16 primary shake out?

As incumbents, Frick and Del. Ariana Kelly (D) presumably have an advantage. But how much fence-mending does Frick have to do, and does he have enough time to do it? Do some of Kelly’s personal troubles – which she’s been very open about – affect her ability to campaign effectively, or is the fact that she’s one of two women in an eight-candidate primary all but guarantee victory?

Of the challenger candidates, Hrant Jamgochian, who finished just out of the running in 2010, and attorney Marc Korman, are impressive, and nobody has worked harder than young Jordan Cooper. This one seems wide open.

Is this the year they finally put a stake in House Judiciary Chairman Joe Vallario (D)?

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.