Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cardin is Vulnerable, but will Win in a Landslide

On the morning after the Maryland primary I wrote a piece in which I argued the results revealed some dangers for Maryland Democrats. In the newly gerrymandered 6th congressional district more Republicans than Democrats turned-out to vote even though the 6th district featured the only contested Democratic congressional primary in the state.

I argued then that the presence of ballot initiatives on marriage equality and the Maryland Dream Act may boost conservative and Republican turn-out in November. Such a boost may be enough to protect Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (the Republican targeted by the 6th district gerrymander) and could provide a boost ( a boost, not a win) to Republican Dan Bongino's challenge to incumbent Senator Ben Cardin.

Democrats in the state reacted as they always do when I dare to be critical of them - by accusing me of being a Republican plant trying to provide spin (the fact that I support marriage equality, the Dream Act, and Sen. Cardin are apparently all a part of my brilliant cover). I'm just a fan of good government and two party competition - it helps keep the parties honest and responsive to the public when in power.

I stand by what I wrote in April and I think the new Gonzales poll lends credence to what I wrote. The just released poll finds Ben Cardin receiving the support of only 50% of potential voters. Cardin is vulnerable. He's the most vulnerable Democrat in the state either statewide or at the federal level.

For reasons that I cannot fully explain, Cardin has consistently received the lowest approval ratings of all statewide Democrats. This is surprising to me in that Cardin is one of the few grown-ups left in DC. He demonstrates no clear partisan zeal and seems dedicated above else to simply doing his job. His reward for being an adult has been marginal approval ratings in prior polls and a bare minimum 50% reelect number in this new poll.

The only explanation I can offer is that the lingering effects of the Cardin/Mfume primary in 2006 and the Cardin/Muse contest in April have resulted in soft support for Cardin among African-American Democrats. Cardin receives 71% of the African-American vote in this poll - low for an incumbent Democrat. African-Americans are they most loyal and important voting bloc for the Maryland Democratic Party, yet the party has repeatedly passed over African-American candidates for statewide office. And the newly gerrymandered Congressional districts denied African-Americans a deserved third majority-minority district so that African-American voters could be used to instead protect incumbent white Democrats. African-American voters have cause to be upset with the state party and Cardin may be the outlet for their frustrations.

Yet Cardin will win reelection by double digits. Why? Because two candidates are vying for the 50% of voters not committed to Cardin. The Republican nominee, Dan Bongino, is a political neophyte with precious little money but an impressive life story and credentials. The other candidate on the ballot is Rob Sobhani, an Independent candidate with deep pockets (and equally impressive credentials) who has twice sought and lost the Republican nomination for Senate in Maryland - both times to horrible alternatives.

Bongino has spent nothing on advertising (his first ads start tomorrow) and Sobhani has spent $1.4 million over a recent two week period. The Gonzales poll shows the result of that spending imbalance - Bongino and Sobhani split the anti-Cardin vote down the middle.

The Bongino/Sobhani split reveals one of the greatest contributions to the ongoing success of the Maryland Democratic party (despite it's many problems) - the complete dysfunction of the Maryland Republican Party. Sobhani is a moderate Republican and that likely explains his prior nomination defeats. The Gonzales poll shows him drawing more support among Independents than either Cardin or Bongino. But Maryland's Republican Party refuses to acknowledge a simple reality - the path to being a viable alternative to the Maryland Democratic Party runs through the political center and not to the political right.

Republicans in Democratic states like Massachusetts have shown that moderate GOP candidates can win, but the Maryland GOP keeps running to the right. And that opens the party to a third party threat that will only protect Democrats.

In the last 35 years Democrats have witnessed their voter registration advantage fall from a 70% - 25% split to a 56% - 26% split. Voters have been leaving the the party. But they have been registering as Independents or unaffiliated voters. Maryland Republicans have not been able to capitalize on that decades long flight from the Democrats. In fact, Republicans did better in Maryland when Democrats had a larger registration advantage - because the party ran candidates like Connie Morella, Wayne Gilchrest, and Mac Mathias. Those folks would be run out of the party today - in fact Gilchrest was.

Unless state Republicans can broaden their appeal and design an agenda and a message tailored to Maryland voters and not the national GOP base they will continue to lose races - even ones that are winnable. The Maryland GOP seems to think it can just run on an agenda of "we oppose everything the Democrats do" and win. No, not enough. The Maryland GOP were first to nominate a woman for Governor and first to nominate an African-American for statewide office. Yet they've done nothing policy-wise to broaden their appeal. Nominating candidates is not enough. African-Americans may be frustrated with the state Democratic Party, but the MD GOP has given no reason in recent years for African-Americans (or any minority group for that matter) to even consider supporting a Republican.

The smartest thing the MD GOP could do to begin broadening their appeal is open their primaries to Independent and unaffiliated voters. The Republican base may not like that option or the centrist nominees it would produce, but one has to assume they'd come around pretty quickly if they actually started winning elections again. Of course an upside to this would be that Democrats would then open their primaries and the two parties would compete for Independent voters.

In the absence of a competitive Republican Party, Marylanders will be left with the governance of a single dominant party that has grown complacent and arrogant in the absence of any check on its power. No one is served well by such a situation (No one other than deep pocketed special interest groups like the gambling industry that was able to buy a special session of the General Assembly).

If the goal for the GOP and Sobhani is to defeat Cardin then either Sobhani or Bongino need to exit the race. If the goal, however, is to help reelect a worthy public servant by a comfortable margin then both men are doing an excellent job.