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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Reclaim the Governor's Mansion, MD GOP Should Look to McKeldin

In 1950, incumbent Democratic governor William Preston Lane was seeking reelection. Lane had won the office 4 years earlier by a wide margin. But by 1950, Lane was in trouble. He had committed his administration to taking on the numerous infrastructure improvements that had been delayed by WWII - including the Bay Bridge. Lane financed these improvements with an increased sales tax. Few could dispute the need for the improvements, yet the tax proved to be quite unpopular. In 1950, Lane was challenged for the Democratic nomination by George Mahoney. Mahoney was a conservative Democrat who appeared often on ballots during that era. Lane survived the primary challenge but emerged from the contest weakened.

In the general election he faced off against the former Republican Mayor of Baltimore City, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin. McKeldin trounced Lane 57% to 42% in the election. At the time, it was the widest victory margin for any gubernatorial candidate in the state and it remains the high watermark for GOP candidates for governor. McKeldin was an effective and successful chief executive. He was what many today would call a New England Republican or a Rockefeller Republican. He did not dismiss government as evil or even a necessary evil - rather it served an important purpose. For McKeldin, that purpose was largely infrastructure and Marylanders benefit from his legacy any time they travel I-695, I-495, or US Route 50. McKeldin was re-elected in 1954 and after leaving public life in 1959, was reelected Mayor of Baltimore City from 1963-1967. He was the last two term Republican governor in MD and the last Republican Mayor of Baltimore City.

So what does any of this have to do with 2014 and the MD Republican gubernatorial nominating contest? I argue there are several things to be learned from McKeldin and the 1950 election. One important lesson being unpopular policies can harm a candidate even if voters support the need for the policies. Lane was seriously harmed by the increased sales tax - even as voters recognized the good that was coming from the revenue. Over the past 7 years, Marylanders have been subject to numerous tax increases - sales, income, gas, fees - voters in this Blue state may support the programs being funded, but that doesn't mean they're not smarting from the lost income. The increased sales and gas taxes may be the most onerous. Voter anger weakened Lane and created an opening for McKeldin.

The 1950 contest tells us as well that divisive primaries can provide opportunities for Republicans. The battle between Mahoney and Lane left the party divided and Lane weakened. This kind of party division also helped Republican Spiro "Ted" Agnew win the governorship in 1966. There is tremendous potential for a very divisive Democratic primary contest in 2014. At present, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler have nowhere to go other than the governor's mansion. Each man will fight like hell to win the party's nomination. Such a pitched battle could leave the Democratic electorate divided - providing an opening for the GOP. Such divisions occurred in 1950, 1966, and even in 2002 - when many in the party were less than thrilled by the coronation of the lackluster Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Townsend furthered party divisions by tapping a white Republican to be her running mate. Republicans won the governor's mansion in each of those years.

Finally, McKeldin was the right kind of Republican for Maryland. Make no mistake, McKeldin was a partisan. He was a proud Republican. But McKeldin was also a realist. In 1950, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 2.6-1. McKeldin could not win without winning over Democrats. Ever the pragmatist, McKeldin worked hard to win over elements of the Democratic electorate left divided after their party's primary. McKeldin took elements of Mahoney's and Lane's agendas and made them part of his own. He downplayed partisanship, instead focusing on accountability. He argued Lane had presided over wasteful spending and unnecessarily high taxes. He argued that Lane was inaccessible and simply a part of the Democratic party machine. As governor, he focused on governmental reform and increased transparency in the state. He stood up to unions and other entrenched interests - rarely invoking party.

Republicans do have an opportunity in 2014 to repeat 1950 (though repeating McKeldin's 15 point victory margin is beyond impossible- but winning by 1.5% or 0.15% is still winning). If Anthony Brown is nominated, he will carry with him the weight of Martin O'Malley's tenure in office. For all of the good - spending in check, funding for education, same sex marriage, etc... - he will also bear the burden of the bad - a declining tax base, mediocre job growth, higher gas, sales, and income taxes, and a government sorely lacking in transparency and electoral accountability. The GOP must look to the McKeldin model, it must run on an agenda that is economic and not social. It should make government a central issue, but not by portraying it as a force of evil. Rather, it must be presented as an essential partner. But a partner in need of reform and oversight. Brown must be portrayed as being part of the party machine, a candidate incapable of and unwilling to commit to needed reforms (his laundry list of endorsements by the establishment should make that an easy argument). The GOP needs to run a campaign based on reform and accountability. A campaign about anything else will just elect the democratic nominee.

In an upcoming post I'll look at the candidates for the GOP nomination, but at present, only one declared candidate appears ready to carry forward the McKeldin mantle and reclaim the governor's mansion in Maryland. And that's Harford County Executive David Craig.