4/9/2012: As a quick update - any doubt about the present dysfunctional state of the Maryland Democratic party should be put to rest by looking to the mess that is the final day of the 2012 legislative session. Seeing conference committees or vote-oramas on the final day is neither new nor a sign of chaos but seeing the House Ways and Means committee meeting to discuss gambling in PG county INSTEAD of the two chambers reconciling the budget is a sign of chaos. Two party competition has a way of focusing parties....
Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola's defeat in the MD-6 legislative primary will have reverberations felt well beyond the district. In many ways, the Garagiola defeat is a sign of hard times ahead for the Maryland Democratic party. First, let's address the Garagiola loss. Garagiola is a powerful member of the state Senate and he enjoyed the backing of most of the Democratic party establishment in the state. Senate President Mike Miller drew the district for Garagiola and Steny Hoyer backed Garagiola in the primary. John Delaney was a novice politician running in a Democratic primary on a platform of fiscal conservatism. Gargiola had the backing of the unions and Moveon.org. By all accounts, Garagiola should have won a closed Democratic primary. So why did he lose? Because Maryland's Democratic party is quite different from most other state Democratic parties.
Nationally, the Republican and Democratic parties have sorted rather neatly into two ideologically homogeneous parties. The Democrats have become the home of political liberals and the Republicans are home to conservatives. More moderate voters either loosely associate with one party or the other or eschew both. The ideological sorting is especially evident among elected officials and it began in earnest at the end of the 1960s.
But something odd happened in the Free State. In many respects the great American ideological realignment passed Maryland by. Maryland remains home to a species long thought extinct by many a political observer - the conservative Democrat. They defeated Senator Millard Tydings in 1950 and his son Joseph in 1970. They delivered the state to George Wallace in the 1972 primary. They nominated perennial candidate George Mahoney for Senator in 1952 and again for Governor in 1966 - only to see him lose both times to a moderate Republican. They nearly helped elect Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994 and embarrassed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 Democratic primary (Fustero who?) and in the general elected Republican Bob Ehrlich. They elected John Delaney on Tuesday night.
Democrats have long enjoyed a voter registration advantage in the state, though it has declined. In 1966 Democrats claimed 72% of the electorate, that fell to 67% in 1986, and 56% today. Republicans were 26% in 1966 and remain 27% today. Now the growing number of independent voters tend to vote Republican - suggesting they came from among the Democrats' once large conservative ranks, but conservative Democrats remain and are crucial to the party's dominance in the state Assembly. Conservative Democrats help send Kevin Kelly, John Donoghue, Johnny Wood Jr., John Bohanan, Roy Dyson, Jim Brochin, Ronald Young, John Astle, Jim Mathias and others to the Assembly from districts that could as easily elect Republicans.
The Democrats' success in Maryland has stemmed from the party's ability to maintain a balance between the interests of more rural southern Democrats an urban and suburban liberals and minority voters. For decades the party has done this well. Contrary to the claims of many Republicans, "the Peoples Republic of Maryland" has never been the overtaxed, over-regulated, business hating environment they claim. Rather Maryland's lawmakers have often found a middle ground. The balancing act has kept liberals happy and prevented conservative Democrats from casting, or defending, votes on many divisive issues. When conservative Democrats have considered a revolt, considered joining with minority Republicans, The House Speaker and Senate President could keep them in line via the power they enjoy to reward or punish.
The Assembly leadership is quite powerful in Maryland. They control committee assignments, they control access to the floor and the calendar. If you cross them they can harm your career and sideline your initiatives. Please them and they can reward you... but there are growing signs that there are limits to the rewards they can offer and power based only on the ability to punish cannot be easily maintained.
Consider some of the supposed rewards - I'll start with committee assignments. Most members of the Assembly want to advance in their careers. They want a shot at being chair, they want a shot at a significant committee. The problem is the Assembly is a body in great stasis. As chronicled by Josh Kurtz in a great piece at CenterMaryland Mike Busch is the "longest-tenured speaker in state history... Adrienne Jones... the longest-serving speaker pro tem... Kumar Barve... the longest-serving House majority leader... Joe Vallario and Sheila Hixson...the longest-serving chairmen of their respective committees." That long service may be great for some, but for others it just means no upward mobility. For Busch it means fewer prime spots to offer as rewards. Perhaps the next time Busch creates a dual committee supercommittee just to avoid the defeat of a bill he supports more members of his party will be speak up.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Rob Garagiola was supposed to be heading to Congress. Mike Miller gerrymandered a district just for him - MD-06. This would then create a reverse domino effect of open positions and allow for some advancement - even if it meant advancing to a figure head position like majority leader. It would also prove that loyalty to Miller can mean great things - like his endorsement and a tailor-made congressional district. But then a novice named John Delaney crushed Garagiola. The high powered help provided by Martin O'Malley and Steny Hoyer delivered nothing to Garagiola. The early pressure placed on Delaney by party higher ups to stay out failed. Now, Garagiola remains majority leader, so no advancements, no dominoes. Perhaps worse, the defeat calls into question Mike Miller's ability to deliver, his ability to reward. Perhaps next time a bill arises opposed by Republicans and conservative Democrats those Democrats won't fear joining a Republican filibuster. The loss also revealed schisms in the state party establishment - and it showed that even the support of the most prominent members of the party establishment is of little help. And never mind that to create the district for Garagiola, Rep. Chris Van Hollen's once safe 8th district was drastically redrawn and Van Hollen - chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - will now have to fight for his seat. What a great way to treat a former colleague who has made the jump to Congress.
Even as Busch and Miller seem to have less to offer their members they seem to have plenty to offer themselves. Though very much ignored in the press, many members of the Assembly took note of how Busch and Miller treated themselves in the redistricting process. Speaker Busch has always been a little vulnerable in his Anne Arundel district - often finishing in a tight cluster among the top 4 candidates in a three member district. Busch remedied that situation by dividing district 30 into a new single member 30B and a two member 30A - 30A was made more Democratic and that's where Busch will run. Never mind that the division of districts into single member subdistricts was meant to be reserved for geographically large rural districts. Miller, not to be outdone, shifted his Prince Georges/Calvert county district 27 a bit further south into Calvert county to protect his own seat. But in doing so, Miller drew fellow Democrat Del. Joseph Vallario Jr. out of 27 and placed him in District 23B along with another Democrat Del. Marvin Holmes.
One may as well consider the treatment of Democratic Senator Jim Brochin. Brochin is a conservative representing a marginally Democratic district in Baltimore county. Frequently a thorn in the side of Miller and Gov. O'Malley. Brochin's district was shifted north and made decidedly more Republican so that Democrats in his district could be used to maintain the size of Baltimore City's delegation. Many members, even those who disagreed with Brochin, were shocked by the willingness to sacrifice a member to settle a political score.
Starting to get the picture? There's seemingly little to offer members other than punishment and the rewards are reserved for the leadership. What's to keep dissident voices in line? Even reliable Democratic voices are starting to openly challenge Miller.
With regard to Governor O'Malley, he was quite cautious during his first term. After an initial special session and modest tax increases the Governor spent the rest of his term holding most spending flat and avoiding any groundbreaking or controversial issues. Then he won reelection, then he became chair of the Democratic Governors Association, then he started thinking about 2016.... then things changed.
As his national star has risen O'Malley's Maryland star has dimmed. Prior governors have used redistricting to curry favor with members of the Assembly, to win support on key initiatives. Yet last session O'Malley introduced a modestly ambitious agenda and then stood on the sidelines and watched it be ignored - ignored after winning re-election by 14 points, by an Assembly dominated by members of his own party and soon to be subject to redistricting at his hands... but nothing. O'Malley watched as same-sex marriage legislation died and then only took it up as an important issue after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was able to push it through a divided legislature - and then it was all about 2016 and a Democratic presidential primary. But who actually delivered same-sex marriage? It was Speaker Busch and his joint committee and it was President Miller and his ability to quash any threat of a filibuster by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans (at least on this issue).
This session Governor O'Malley rolled out his most ambitious agenda ever. The elimination of tax deductions for upper income earners, the application of the state sales tax to gasoline, a state-imposed ban on septic systems, off shore wind (again)... just to name a few initiatives. But the session started with O'Malley suggesting an increase in the sales tax on the opening day - suddenly a day always dedicated to ceremony found Busch and Miller answering questions about the sales tax. As the session began President Miller quipped that he hoped O'Malley would find more time to spend in the state. The Senate essentially dismissed the O'Malley budget and created their own. Miller was unable (or unwilling) to stop the Democratic and Republican coalition that joined to filibuster the septic bill. As the 90 day session nears a close the House and Senate are far apart on the budget and the one person who seems to have no role in the negotiations? Martin O'Malley. Rather than deal with the unfinished O'Malley agenda the Assembly is wasting time ratifying the 17th amendment - in effect since 1913. And as the Assembly is caught up in a budget debate that threatens much of the rest of the O'Malley agenda the Governor is suddenly talking about increasing the sales tax again.
Maryland's Democratic party is in disarray. The Garagiola defeat simply shined a bit more light on the problem. Leadership in the Assembly are faced with restless members eager to advance, yet there is little the leadership can offer. The state faces significant challenges, but its governor has shifted his gaze to a national stage. His proposals are more about national primary politics than about Maryland politics. O'Malley is forcing the state Democratic party to defend issues that are well in-line with the national Democratic party but more left of center than the Maryland Democratic party. As party leadership is less able to hold members in line many conservative Democrats and moderate Democrats from rural and even suburban parts of the state are going to become more concerned with their electoral needs than with the party's needs.
To look at the House and Senate today based solely on numbers it would be easy to dismiss any talk of a party in trouble. But Republicans hold 43 of 141 seats in the House. A review of the election results from 2010 suggests the party came close to holding quite a few more. If Democrats cannot fix their current problems they will face, within the next two election cycles, a House with over 50 Republicans - unprecedented in Maryland. In the Senate, Republicans took a hit in 2010 falling to 12 out of 47 seats - but consider the Democratic seats in Districts 3, 29, 30, and 38 - they are far from safe and a few other districts have seen Democratic margins shrink significantly since 2006. Republicans need only 19 seats to mount a filibuster and therefore alter the power balance in the chamber. So far, Democrats have been able to capitalize on the fact that the Maryland Republican party has been an organizational mess frequently unable to field credible candidates. There are signs that is ending.
After the 2010 elections Republicans for the first time hold 50% of all local offices - though some are quick to ignore this milestone to do so is narrowminded. This marked a significant movement by state Republicans. For 2012 Republicans are fielding credible challengers (as opposed to challenges) against Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd congressional district and Chris Van Hollen in the 8th. Dan Bongino is likely to make a serious run against Senator Ben Cardin - none of these GOP candidates are likely to win but it's a sign of life in a party that has often offered no or only token challenges. Even in the 5th district, Steny Hoyer faced a credible challenger (as opposed to challenge) in Charles Lollar in 2010 and will again from House of Delegates Minority Leader Tony O'Donnell. Hoyer is in no danger, but Republicans are learning that the party cannot afford to let Democrats go unchallenged. Yes, Lollar lost by 30 points, but his coattails elected many Republicans to county office in St. Mary's and Calvert county in 2010 - two counties that he won easily.
To focus only on the margin of victory or loss while ignoring the effects on the rest of the ballot is a mistake made by armchair analysts in some random blogger's forum. It's not a mistake that can be made by party leadership. It's from these local offices that the party develops a bench of potential candidates for the Assembly or other offices. Republicans are realizing that to win down ballot they must run up ballot - even if it's a losing race. Even if the Democrats' real registration advantage means winning a statewide race will likely always be a losing battle for Republicans it's a battle they seem to be waking to the need to fight. In 2010 the the state GOP hung its statewide hopes on Bob Ehrlich and did not bother to mount real challenges for any other statewide office - why would voters take such a party seriously?
Now I've been writing about Maryland politics long enough to know that I will soon be the recipient of numerous e-mails telling me how the "radical, right wing, tea party Republicans" will never be competitive in Maryland. Well sorry folks, regardless of how much the national Republican party has moved right the Maryland Republican party is little more conservative today than it was in 1994 when Ellen Sauerbrey came with 6,000 votes of being governor. But the Maryland Democratic party has moved left - moved closer to the national party. That movement is placing real pressure on the state party coalition. Perhaps more challenging for the party has been the Republicans' newly discovered weapon - the internet driven petition initiative and referendum. Now, when conservative Democrats cast a vote "for the party" on a tough issue they can't rely on voters' short memories. Likewise, even if they vote against the issue the petition and referendum will keep the public focused on it - it's only a matter of time until a hot button referendum vote coincides with a state election. The presence of same-sex marriage and the Maryland Dream Act on the 2012 ballot may well boost Republican chances in the 2nd, 6th, and 8th districts and in the senate race. Imagine the impact in a non-presidential election.
The Maryland Democratic party needs a shakeup. It needs leadership that is concerned with - of all things - Maryland. Democrats claim 56% of registered voters to Republicans 27% - but the fastest growing segment of the Maryland electorate is unaffiliated voters... and they vote Republican. Maryland is not a 2 to 1 Democratic state. At best it's about 60/40 in actual voting. Democrats have been able to use their institutional advantages to turn that 60% of the vote into 70% of House seats and 75% of Senate seats. But for how much longer? If the party continues to push conservative Democrats away a 55/45 state is not impossible to imagine - and with it a power balance in the General Assembly unseen in the modern era. And O'Malley's new found passion for tax increases (in the midst of a very weak economic recovery) and opposition to rural development (sorry about the collapse in value of your family's farmland) is providing Republicans with an incredible opening - 2012 and especially 2014 will tell whether the minority party is truly ready to compete.
The party also needs to ask whether it will continue to be the uniquely Maryland Democratic party that has dominated the state since the age of Jackson (never mind that little respite during Reconstruction) or whether it will become a state-based clone of the national party. That would make the party more ideologically homogeneous and as such much easier to mange. But, like the national party it would emulate, it would be smaller and less powerful than it once was. The next Democratic governor will have a lot to do with how that internal party conversation will go. I suspect much of the primary will be dedicated to that conversation and the election may well provide the decision. I hope it's a good one.