Democrats dazed and confused

Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics for years for the Gazette and then for Center Maryland. He’s currently raising money to launch Maryland Matters, a news website like (More on that at the bottom of this column)

Both sites are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News dedicated to finding sustainable models for news coverage in an era of shrinking newsrooms. Since Josh is without a home for his columns at the moment, we offered to publish this typically long one with some interesting insights on 2018 that he posted on Facebook. We don’t publish it because we agree with everything he says, but because it adds to the intelligent conversation about state government and politics we all need more of.

By Josh Kurtz

A critical election has just ended, and Democrats are walking around in a daze.

The pre-Election Day polls were close, but Democrats were confident they were going to win. In fact, they couldn’t really imagine losing.

They had demographics and recent electoral history on their side. And Republicans had nominated a glib, rich businessman with no governing experience and a simplistic, digestible agenda that did not seem to match the needs of our modern times or the increasingly polyglot population.

But instead, the voters delivered a stunning rebuke. They wanted change, not more of the same. The results were close – but decisive.

It turned out that the Democratic nominee, who was poised to make history, didn’t really inspire anyone. The Democrat had been next in line, had been striving for the top job for years and felt entitled to it.

The Democrats had built an impressive fundraising machine, but didn’t offer any rationale for people to vote for them – just scare tactics about what would happen if the Republican won. The Democratic base quite obviously didn’t turn out as forcefully as it needed to – and as it had in recent elections.

What’s worse, the Democrats slipped in critical battlegrounds where they once thrived, and there’s evidence that some of these jurisdictions – and some of the core voters in them, especially working-class and middle-class white people – may be lost to the party indefinitely. To these particular voters, the Democrats, more than ever, seemed indifferent and out of touch, bordering on hostile.

So the Democrats are forced to wonder what went wrong and how to pick up the pieces. With no obvious, charismatic figure waiting in the wings to galvanize their voters, the party will rely for a while on senior legislative leaders, who have stubbornly held on to their offices for decades and don’t seem to fully comprehend what has just happened, to serve as a counterpoint to the Republican victor.

2016 parallels 2014 in Maryland

Yep, November 2016 is feeling pretty bleak for Democrats.

But what I’m also describing here is November 2014 in Maryland. Just substitute Donald Trump for Larry Hogan, and Hillary Clinton for Anthony Brown. Then the parallels, if you’re a Democrat, become distressingly stark.

There is little evidence that two years after their unanticipated wipeout, Maryland Democrats are any closer to solving their problems – or winning back turf that they lost in 2014.

Democrats are crowing that the four candidates that Hogan endorsed this fall lost badly. That hardly seems to matter for 2018. Democrats are about to embark on a search for a new state party chairman – again.

Republicans gleefully point out that the Democratic candidates for federal offices in Maryland saw their vote percentages drop slightly from 2012, the last presidential year. But that hardly seems to matter for 2018, either. The state GOP, too, is looking for new leadership – and much as they rail against gerrymandering, Republicans aren’t any closer to solving the riddle of federal elections in Maryland.

Ironically, Democrats’ misery at the national level – and specifically, Trump’s victory – could provide an unexpected lifeline to Maryland Democrats. Certainly the terrain in Maryland for 2018 has shifted in the past week. The question is, how much? And does Hogan, who seemed on the glide path to a second term before Election Day, have to begin sweating a bit?

Trump may not be good for Hogan

Hogan, who mentions his high poll ratings incessantly at every public appearance, may not think so. He has masterfully built a brand separate and distinct from party politics, and artfully managed to distance himself from Trump during the election.

But the words “President Donald Trump” cannot make blue state Republicans like Hogan too happy.

Hogan and Maryland Republicans – like so many other political professionals – assumed Clinton would be president, all but guaranteeing that 2018 would be a big Republican year nationally, with residual benefits in Maryland. The party in the White House almost always struggles in off-year elections.

Instead, Republicans will control all the levers of power in Washington, D.C. – in addition to two-thirds of the nation’s gubernatorial seats and an overwhelming majority of state legislatures. If the mercurial American electorate is looking for change in 2018, as it almost certainly will, the Democrats will surely be the beneficiaries.

And then there’s Trump himself. He has conducted himself fairly soberly so far in the wake of the election. But surely he will not be able to control himself forever. Republican elected officials like Hogan will be asked about every Trump outburst, every crazy statement he makes, every provocation, every concession to the extremist policies emanating from Capitol Hill.

You think Hogan became churlish when asked about Trump during the campaign? Just wait.

Bipartisan on his own terms

Hogan likes to say that he’s bipartisan – but except for his bromance with Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), a marriage of convenience and mutual self-interest based on their shared antipathy for entrenched Democratic leaders in Annapolis, there’s not much evidence of it. Hogan is quick, almost eager, to bash Democrats and their allied interest groups (like teachers’ unions) when their arguments do not align with his. When he says he’s bipartisan, he really means he believes in bipartisanship on his terms.

Hogan assumed that Trump would lose to Clinton, and he hoped to inject himself further into the national conversation in the aftermath. He felt he had something to teach the national GOP about appealing to voters in a blue state.

But now national Republicans are uninterested in listening – and are eager to push through a right-wing agenda.

No matter how hard he tries, Hogan will not be able to erase the R that will follow his name on the 2018 ballot. As if we needed any reminding, Hogan spent the early part of this week in Orlando, Fla., with his fellow Republican governors, listening in rapt attention to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who once said he’d “like to send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history;” signed a law allowing Indiana businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples on religious grounds; slashed funding for Planned Parenthood, and, as a member of Congress, tried to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

Fellow Republican governors

While in Orlando, Hogan is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who suggested in September that an armed insurrection might be in order if Hillary Clinton was elected president; with Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), famous for his racist rants about phantom out-of-state drug dealers who impregnate white girls; with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the scourge of organized labor; with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), whose slavish devotion to trickle-down economics has ruined the state economy and obliterated the social safety net; with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), whose administration prevented state agencies from using the words “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications; and with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who faces impeachment proceedings for an alleged affair with a top staffer.

Only by the standards of the modern Republican Party, the GOP of the tea party and Trump, is Hogan a moderate. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that he was proudly calling himself a Ronald Reagan conservative. It is going to be that much harder, with Republicans so firmly in control of this country, for Hogan to distance himself from his party.

And in 2018, presumably, Hogan will be facing a fired-up Democratic electorate. Democrats may feel OK about Hogan generally, but if they are angry about the GOP agenda in Washington, they will want to punish someone in two years – and Hogan could be the victim. If Clinton were president, Democrats might feel a little more sanguine about keeping Hogan around.

Democrats must offer something and someone

Of course, to win in 2018, Maryland Democrats have to offer voters something to get excited about, and here the shifting terrain once again accrues to their benefit. Labor Secretary Tom Perez is not going to be Hillary Clinton’s attorney general; he could well run for governor. Rep. Elijah Cummings is not going to be chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Lots of fellow Democrats are urging him to run for governor.

Perez or Cummings could galvanize Democrats and progressive activists in ways that the current crop of potential candidates for governor, like Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, and Congressman John Delaney, might not.

But none of those three should be counted out, either: Each now has a better chance of becoming governor than he did 10 days ago – and each now will need to up his game and craft a compelling message for our newly perilous times.

From Josh Kurtz’s Facebook posting: As some of you know, I am working with a group of folks to try to start Maryland Matters, an online news service offering full coverage of Maryland government and business. We’ve set up a nonprofit to make this happen, through the good offices of the Community Foundation for the National Capitol Region, and we are now accepting tax deductible contributions. We have a challenge grant of $250,000, which will become available to us after we raise $250,000.

If you believe in fiercely independent, non-partisan news coverage of our important institutions, which aren’t getting much scrutiny these days, then I urge you to consider a donation to the Maryland Matters Fund. Thanks to the challenge grant, your contribution is essentially worth double.

If you have questions about our effort, feel free to give me a call at 202-419-9119, or drop me a line. You can make secure, online donations here: