Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Maryland 2014 and the Men Who Would Be Governor

The 2014 Democratic primary for Maryland governor may seem a long way off, but for the men interested in the nomination it looms large on the horizon. With all eyes turned to the 2012 legislative session of the General Assembly and Martin O'Malley's high profile gambit for a resume' of actual accomplishments I think it's worth taking a moment to look at the men who wish to succeed him.

At present, there are likely to be four big names (and what a rarity that is - four credible candidates) seeking the Democratic nomination, Attorney General Doug Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

Only two Republicans have won statewide election since 1980 (can you name the two?) so the odds do favor a Democrat winning the general election, regardless of the Republican nominee.

Though many observers of state politics argue Gansler is the clear frontrunner, I would suggest that conclusion is anything but certain. If the 2014 primary were like a typical Democratic primary in recent years with only two credible candidates then certainly Gansler would be the favorite - but in a three man race his odds drop considerably and in a 4 man race a clear new favored candidate emerges from the pack - Lt. Governor Anthony Brown. In a multi-candidate race featuring Brown, the closest competitor will be the candidate who can appeal to rural Marylanders in Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and Southern Maryland - that candidate is not (at least not yet) Doug Gansler.

Quick Candidate Profiles

In a recent profile, Gansler described himself as "fiscally conservative" and “an unabashed, pro-business, moderate centrist Democrat.” Though this may be the image Gansler would want to project in a general election, his record and reputation suggest otherwise. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms was an individual right and that states were limited in their power to restrict such rights. Prior to the ruling, Gansler joined a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the Supreme Court urging the justices not to extend the Second Amendment to the states. During the 2010 legislative session of the General Assembly, Gansler sent waves through Maryland politics when he issued an opinion that Maryland courts would likely recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. As Attorney General, Gansler has made environmental protection a top priority and even created the Attorney General’s Environmental Advisory Council to advise him. In short, Gansler's tenure in office has been marked by the high profile pursuit of very liberal causes. To be fair, Gansler may be fiscally conservative, but there is little opportunity for an Attorney General to establishing those credentials. Make no mistake, Gansler will be the liberal in the 2014 primary. His advisory opinion on Maryland recognizing same-sex marriage, his environmental crusading, and his firm support of gun control would make it impossible for him to claim to be anything but a member of the progressive wing of the Democratic party. That said, Maryland has promoted past Attorneys General - seven have sought the governorship since 1900 and three have been elected. But no Attorney General has made the leap to Government House since 1946 - of the three that have tried since then none succeeded.

This brings us to Comptroller Peter Franchot. Since early last year, Franchot has wisely used his role as Comptroller to lay claim to the banner of true fiscal conservative. Last summer, Franchot warned Maryland (but especially the Governor and General Assembly) that the state had become too reliant on the federal government for jobs and economic growth. What sounded like a wise warning in August now seems especially prescient given the failure of the Deficit Reduction Supercommittee. Maryland is uniquely dependent on the federal government. Fully 1/5 of the state workforce is employed by government at some level and 30% of the state's budget revenue comes from the federal government. If federal budget cuts are truly in our future, Maryland's golden days of low unemployment and job growth may be gone. More recently, Franchot criticized Governor O'Malley's FY 2013 budget proposal and argued for a moratorium on tax increases until the economy improves. In comments last week before the Maryland Association of Realtors Franchot singled out the Governor's plan to phase-out the mortgage interest deduction for upper middle class earners as especially troubling in a state with a still recovering housing market. In perhaps the most significant sign that Franchot will wear the banner of true fiscal conservative his warnings against state borrowing recently earned the scorn of the Baltimore Sun editorial page (a distinction likely to be viewed as a badge of honor by voters outside of the I-95 corridor). Franchot also has history on his side, of the six Comptrollers who have been elected in the past 90 years three were elected governor after serving as Comptroller. Marylanders tend to trust their Comptrollers.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman will have the benefit of being the only chief executive in the race and he will be the only candidate from the Baltimore region (authentically given that Ulman's parents are from Baltimore). Since the 1950s, 8 of the last 10 governors have come from Baltimore City or County. Five of the last 10 were county executives or mayors - suggesting Maryland voters like to elect candidates with executive experience. Though once the political power base in the state, Baltmore City and the larger Baltimore region have witnessed the state's population and political power as it slowly, but clearly migrates to the DC suburbs in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties. The greater Baltimore region of Baltimore City, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard County is home to 41% of the state's registered Democrats. Ulman has been in the headlines recently criticizing the Governor's proposal to shifted millions of dollars in teacher's pension costs to the counties in an effort to balance the state budget. Ulman cannot easily be defined as liberal or conservative - he is, dare I say, post-partisan. Even as he criticized the Governor's budget, he has been lauded for the county's innovative health reform efforts and Ulman was central to the state's receipt of a federal grant to bring broadband to the state.

Then there is Anthony Brown. Brown has great resume' for governor. Brown is an Iraq War veteran and Bronze Star recipient, he served nearly 3 decades in the Army and is a Colonel in the Army Reserves. Brown represented legislative district 25 in Prince Georges County from 1998-2006 and was House Majority Whip. The downside for Brown is that even with that incredible resume' many folks in Maryland wonder just who he is. If his goal is to become the next governor of the state, he has not used his time as Lt. Governor as well as one might expect. Brown also has the weight of history working against him. Since the office of Lt. Governor was restored in 1970 no Lt. Governor has gone on to be elected Governor. In fact, only one has even managed to secure the party nomination. That said, he will undoubtedly lay an early claim to the significant African-American vote in the primary. African-Americans compose roughly a third of the Maryland population and a quarter of the registered voters, and are the most reliable Democratic voting bloc - yet the Democratic Party has never nominated and run an African-American candidate at the top of any statewide ticket. Brown is an accomplished legislator with an impressive resume and I believe that African-American voters would be quick to rally around his candidacy.

Looking at the Candidates Strengths/Weaknesses

Gansler and Liberals
In a primary, typically the most committed and partisan activist vote. For Democrats that would mean liberals. In the 2008 presidential primary, 52% of the Democrats voting described themselves as liberal. Laying claim to 52% of the electorate in a 4 man race is no small accomplishment, but it gets more complicated. A further review of the exit poll data suggests that no small share of the Democrats' liberal base is composed of a significant number of African-Americans. This worked out well for Barack Obama as he won 84% of the African-American vote. For Gansler, however, it means the liberal base will be divided and that 52% will be divided between Gansler and Brown - and do not discount Ulman's appeal, especially based on Howard County's health reforms.

Gansler is from Montgomery County and has a record of winning county-wide having served two terms as the states attorney. Montgomery County is home to 16% of the state's registered Democrats. Unfortunately for Gansler, Franchot is also from Montgomery County and represented parts of the county in the General Assembly - so the two men will split the county's votes. Well over a third of the county's registered Democrats are African-Americans and Brown is likely to claim a significant share of them as well.

Brown and African-Americans (please see ***note at end of post)
African-Americans are the Democratic Party's most loyal voting bloc and I believe that the state's many African-American communities will be eager to elect the state's first black chief executive. By my calculation, African-Americans are about 38% of the state's registered Democrats. Barack Obama received 84% of their vote in 2008 and, again based on my own calculations, Kweisi Mfume received about 85% of the African-American vote in the the 2006 Democratic Senate primary. This represents a significant advantage for Brown. In the 2006 primary (which featured a competitive nomination race for Comptroller and Senator) only 30% of state Democrats voted. By my estimation, African-Americans were roughly 38% of that turn-out.

Based on current voter registration totals, a 30% primary turn-out would translate into 577,600 voting Democrats. Assuming African-American and white turn-out is similar then 38%, or 219,500, of the Democrats would be African American and based on past elections Brown would win 84% of their vote, or 184,400 votes - 32% of the total votes cast. So before including his share of the white vote, Brown receives nearly 1/3 of the vote in a 4 man race.... that's quite an advantage.

Ulman and the Baltimore Region 
Those same 2008 exit polls show 48% of voters came from the greater Baltimore region. So being the Baltimore candidate would be a smart strategic move. No other candidate has a clear claim to the region, but of the 48%, nearly a third were from Baltimore City. Nearly two-thirds of City residents are African-American and that means that some of Ulman's "Baltimore advantage" would be diminished as he loses voters to Brown. That said, Howard County is a swing county in a crucial location. Howard is literally the connective tissue that links the Baltimore region with the DC suburbs in Montgomery and PG. Beyond that, western Howard County links the the urban and suburban I-95 corridor with rural Western Maryland. Additionally, Ulman's efforts in Howard County from the Healthy Howard program to environmental initiatives - such as green buildings - would allow him to challenge Gansler's claim to the liberal base.

In many ways, Howard county encapsulates the diversity (economically, geographically, socially) that make Maryland great. Ulman's ability to win there may speak to an ability to appeal to the diverse elements of Maryland's Democratic electorate. That said, Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation and that may work against Ulman as he campaigns in Allegany and Garret County in the west or Wicomico in the east - something will be necessary in a 4 person race. Ulman has maintained Howard's AAA bond rating and kept the county's books in balance - but I think he has a better chance of appealing to the party's liberal base than to more conservative Democrats outside the I-95 corridor.

Franchot and Forgotten Maryland
As I consider Franchot's emphasis on fiscal conservatism I am convinced that he has given a great deal of consideration to the 2014 primary as he has adopted a very wise campaign strategy should he run in a 3 or 4 man race for the nomination. As Comptroller, Franchot cannot initiate new programs like a County Executive, he cannot head taskforces like a Lt. Governor, and he cannot wade into high profile cases like an Attorney General. But, the Comptroller of the state of Maryland is uniquely positioned to take on issues of fiscal prudence. His position on the Board of Public Works makes him the equal of the Governor with regard to budget cuts when the Assembly is not in session and that role gives him every right to establish an independent fiscal identity in the state - he was, after all, elected by the voters independent of the Governor. The Comptroller commands a staff of over 1,100 and sits on the capital debt affordability commission, the commission on state debt, and the board of revenue estimates (among others) - those positions, combined with the Board of Public Works make the Comptroller a key point of citizen contact within the state.

Surveying the 2014 primary landscape one can easily see a battle for the I-95 corridor from Baltimore City, southern Baltimore County, north and west Anne Arundel County, as well as Howard, Montgomery and Prince Georges (and northern Charles) counties. Gansler, Ulman and Brown all have advantages that are very much confined to that area - an area home to 81% of the state's Democrats. But that leaves 17 counties and nearly 20% of the Democratic electorate with no champion. Franchot's fiscal conservatism and swipes at the federal dependency of central Maryland can clearly be understood as an appeal to voters outside of the I-95 corridor who often feel overlooked by the state's Democratic party.

The Role of "the Rest of Maryland" in 2014
All four potential candidates have some claim to the central Maryland I-95 corridor. Gansler, Brown, and Franchot hold statewide office, Brown hails from Prince Georges County, Franchot and Gansler have electoral histories in Montgomery County. Ulman represents Howard. The I-95 corridor may include 81% of the primary electorate, but 81% divided among 4 candidates comes out to about 20.25% per man - in a four person race someone needs to top 25% statewide. That's why rural Maryland is likely to figure far more predominantly in 2014 than it has in any recent Democratic primary.

At present, none of the 4 expected candidates has natural claim to voters in Western or Southern Maryland or on the Eastern Shore. Since none of the candidates are native to those parts of Maryland, the candidate who can find a message that resonates will be best positioned to claim those voters. For Gansler, I do not see how he overcomes his perceived liberalism. Further, he risks alienating his liberal base by trying to present himself as a fiscal conservative. Brown will be harmed by his affiliation with O'Malley. If this year's budget is approved then Brown will be part of an administration that was responsible for two significant tax increases (2007 and 2012) and that "declared war" on rural Maryland. Ulman's innovations in Howard County could become liabilities in rural Maryland where the median income is often half that of Howard County. For Franchot, his past as a liberal Democrat in the General Assembly is likely to be overshadowed by his more recent work as Comptroller. Because it is a fiscal position he does not have the added baggage of social issues to work against him in rural Maryland.

In a four way race featuring Brown, Franchot, Gansler, and Ulman the simple math favors Brown owing to the power of African-American voters in the Democratic electorate. But Brown is likely to be harmed in many parts of the state by his association with O'Malley. Gansler has the money and clearly the ambition but it's difficult to see how Gansler broadens his appeal beyond white liberals in central Maryland - and even among them he will face competition. Ulman brings established credentials as an executive and the promise of a post-partisan age, but will need to establish statewide name recognition beyond the orbit of Howard County. Franchot has positioned himself as the candidate of fiscal constraint and is clearly attempting to create a relationship with parts of Maryland long overlooked by Democrats and Democratic candidates. If Franchot can become the candidate of "the rest of Maryland" while dividing the I-95 corridor vote, he may emerge atop the pack.

The 2014 race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination will be anything but boring, recently released campaign fundrasing numbers show that all four men will have the money needed to compete. Each of the possible candidates bring much to the table in the form of strengths and limitations. Each can lay claim to crucial elements of the Democratic electorate. At present, Gansler has far more money, Brown has a crucial voting bloc and an incredible resume', Ulman has the experience as an executive, and Franchot has a message that truly resonates in the current environment.

I believe that a four man race favors Brown, but he may have to overcome O'Malley fatigue and an electorate hard-pressed to think of an O'Malley accomplishment. In that event, or if this turns into a three person race, the candidate who can consolidate the voters outside the I-95 corridor is likely to emerge the victor.

*** I hasten to add a very important caveat. In no way do I mean to suggest that African-Americans would support a candidate simply based on skin color. Republican Michael Steele's inability to make in-roads with African-American voters in 2006 and Republican Charles Lollar's similar inability in the 5th Congressional District in 2010 clearly demonstrate that African-American voters care more about issues than about race. What Obama in 2008 and Mfume in 2006 show, however, is that when faced with a choice of candidates who share similarly acceptable policy views African-American voters overwhelmingly support the African-American candidate. An easily justified choice given the population's history of being denied representation.