Laslo Boyd: Primary Day Answers and Questions

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By: Laslo Boyd 

In some elections, campaigns matter; but sometimes they don’t. This year’s Democratic primary offered examples of both phenomena at or near the top of the ticket.

Anthony Brown and his running mate Ken Ulman coasted to a decisive victory in the gubernatorial contest. They won by a margin that would not have surprised anyone handicapping the election a year ago. An entire year of ads, mailers, rallies, and debates did little to impact an outcome that seemed ordained almost before the campaign began. 

Brown ran an effective campaign in that he protected and preserved both the lead and the considerable political advantages with which he started. Criticism of his role in the state’s troubled health care web site never seemed to matter to voters. Brown kept his campaign positions relatively vague and general and avoided any significant missteps. Even skipping one of the televised debates didn’t seem to matter to anyone other than his opponents.

The nominee’s next challenge will be to decide whether such an approach to running in the general election against Republican Larry Hogan can be equally effective. Hogan will undoubtedly pick up on themes raised earlier about the level of taxes in Maryland, the slow economic recovery and, despite its lack of traction in the primary, Brown’s “leadership” on health care in Maryland.

Given the two-to-one advantage that Democrats enjoy among registered voters, Hogan has a daunting challenge ahead of him. His only chance is to appeal to enough independents and moderate- to-conservative Democrats to alter the equation. The national Republican brand, with its uncompromising style, often extreme positions on social issues, and fierce anti-government rhetoric won’t play well in Maryland. Can Hogan appeal to voters who may be fiscally more conservative than Anthony Brown without being weighed down by all else that is Republican?

The other two main candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary have to be looking at their similar vote totals from very different perspectives. Doug Gansler finished a distant second despite being seen at the start of the campaign as a formidable candidate, if not indeed the favorite.

In retrospect, it seems clear that was a misreading of the race and a lack of appreciation of the strength of the Brown candidacy. Despite some much publicized missteps early in the campaign, hindsight from the day after the votes were tallied shows that there was little or nothing Gansler could have done to change the outcome. Gansler may not have run the campaign that he had wished for and certainly didn’t achieve the outcome he wanted, but the campaign was not the decisive factor. Whether he is through with elective politics will undoubtedly occupy his thoughts for a considerable time.

Heather Mizeur, who finished a close third to Gansler, has cause to view her campaign as a success story. At the start, she was relatively unknown, never had much of a chance to raise significant campaign contributions and was, according to the smart money, likely to finish in single digits.

Instead, she ran what was widely acknowledged to be the best campaign of the three. She used her platform to address a number of progressive issues that neither of the other candidates talked about, and energized supporters in ways seen in neither of the other campaigns. Does Mizeur have a future in Maryland politics? Can she take the stature that she has achieved in this primary and figure out a way to stay relevant?

The race that really showed how much campaigns can matter was the contest for Attorney General. A poll taken last February showed Delegate Jon Cardin ahead by 16 points with state Senator Brian Frosh and Delegate Aisha Braveboy both trailing badly.  Cardin looked like a sure winner despite a lackluster legislative career. His best asset, his famous last name, looked like it would be enough.

Frosh was closer in a poll last month and certainly seemed to have momentum, but no one predicted Tuesday’s outcome. He tallied 49% of the vote to Cardin’s 30% and Braveboy’s 20%. Frosh’s late charge brought to mind the finishing kick of Secretariat and showed that a well-planned and well-run campaign can change what seems like an inevitable outcome.

The Attorney General nominee has had a great record as a legislator, was a tireless campaigner, and, as the election wore on, attracted the support of a wide and diverse range of backers. Governor Martin O’Malley, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, two former Attorneys General, and lots of other prominent public figures rushed to support a clearly well-qualified candidate and to avoid the embarrassment of his losing to a much less able opponent. 

This campaign is worth studying. The person to ask first about it is John Willis, the former Secretary of State, who played a prominent role and is certainly one of Maryland’s most knowledgeable people about elections.

In other contests, there were a few surprises, but not many.  In two of the most hotly contested races in Montgomery County, Rich Madeleno won renomination and Cheryl Kagan, a former delegate, defeated Del. Luiz Simmons in an election that may win this year’s prize for the most contentious. Two incumbent Republican state senators lost, albeit probably for different reasons.  One sitting county executive, Ike Leggett, won his primary, while another, Laura Neuman, lost hers.

I want to briefly mention two other races.  Del. Keiffer Mitchell, running in a redrawn district in Baltimore City against two other incumbents, lost his bid to return to the General Assembly. Mitchell had distinguished himself for his leadership and willingness to speak out on tough issues, and his departure will diminish the House of Delegates.

On the plus side, in redrawn District 9B in Howard County, political newcomer Tom Coale won his primary and will face off in the fall against an old name in Republican circles, Bob Flanagan. If Coale wins the General Election, he will immediately bring energy and talent to the General Assembly.

I hate to end on a down note, but the other big story from the election, much anticipated, was the alarmingly low turnout. Official figures, which will ultimately include absentee and provisional ballots, won’t be available for some time. However, as I calculate the turnout, using the vote for governor, 22.4% of registered Democrats voted in this year’s primary, while the Republican figure was 19.7%.  Turnout obviously varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and dropped off as you went down the ballot, but even the highest figure is appalling.

Elections matter. There were certainly enough contested races in Maryland that turnout should have been higher. All sorts of explanations are offered for the dismal rate at which Americans participate in their democracy, but, ultimately, the explanations don’t matter. We watch people around the world vote despite threats of violence, wait in incredibly long lines, and fight wars in the hope of winning a democratic government. 

We don’t seem to care enough to hold onto what is precious, and in our indifference, run the risk of losing it.

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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.