Josh Kurtz: Nov. 6 Could Spell Trouble for Top Maryland Dems

By Josh Kurtz

Who says Election Day won’t be exciting in Maryland?

Sure, the results of many races here may seem like foregone conclusions. But not all of them are. And for many political leaders, the stakes are unimaginably high.

Let’s start with Sen. Ben Cardin (D).

There isn’t anyone on the planet who believes Cardin is going to lose, and that‘s been the case for this entire election cycle. But what happens if, in a three-way race, the 46-year veteran of Maryland politics finishes with less than half of the vote?

It’s certainly possible, if the latest public statewide poll, which showed Cardin at just 50 percent, is to be believed. Cardin has been sitting on a large and ever-growing war chest throughout the election cycle, thanks in part to constant “sky is falling” email entreaties from his political team.

But despite his overwhelming financial advantage, his campaign has only recently begun to deploy those millions, well after rich independent candidate Rob Sobhani began airing his ads and deluging voters with slick mail suggesting he‘s considerably more centrist than he really is. Cardin’s first TV ad of the general election just went up last week, and it was nothing special.

At first glance, there’s something shocking about Cardin’s lackluster performance. This guy has never lost an election, dating back to 1966. He’s hard working and well respected among political insiders, with legitimate, if unflashy, accomplishments to boast about. He’s in the forefront of the state Democratic establishment, and his name ID is certainly high in and around Baltimore.

But for all that, polls have shown that Cardin isn’t all that well known in the rest of the state — especially in Prince George’s County. And while he’s studious and conversant about all the top issues in every Maryland jurisdiction, he doesn’t seem comfortable many places and it isn’t clear if he “gets” much of the state — despite dealing with statewide issues for years, first as speaker of the House of Delegates, now as senator. The contrast with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), who remains a rock star everyplace she goes in Maryland, is striking.

Kweisi Mfume finished just 3 points behind Cardin in the 2006 Democratic primary despite raising a paltry sum of money. Tony Muse took 16 percent of the vote in this year’s primary — and 40 percent in Prince George’s — despite being, to put it politely, a very flawed candidate. You think people aren’t taking notice — and preparing to examine Cardin’s Election Day totals very closely for signs of weakness?

It’s impossible to project six years into the future. But Cardin has pointed out in the past that his politically-connected father and uncles lived into their ’90s, so it’s easy enough to imagine him seeking a third term in 2018, when he’ll be 75.

What will the state political dynamic be like then? The current, creaky state Democratic establishment will be six years older. Will Maryland be re-electing its first African-American governor, Anthony Brown, in 2018? Or will the grievances of minority voters, who feel they’ve been underappreciated by Democratic leaders, be that much more pronounced six years from now?

Will someone of stature challenge Cardin in the next Democratic primary? Will Steny Hoyer still be around to protect him? Will other top Democrats be inclined to support him? These can’t be pleasant things for Cardin allies to be contemplating as he scrambles to top 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the Election Day stakes for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) couldn’t be higher. He’s put varying degrees of his political capital into all four of the highest profile referenda on the ballot — same-sex marriage, the DREAM Act, gambling expansion and the new congressional map. And he’ll benefit in different ways if they all pass. Gay marriage in particular will give him a cachet with national progressive activists and donors if it passes (you can be sure one of O’Malley’s potential rivals for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is well aware of this).

But there are multiple political and policy consequences for the governor if one or multiple ballot questions go down. He’ll have to soothe disappointed wings of the Democratic base if marriage equality or the DREAM Act fail. He’ll have to continue scuffling with fiscal austerity if the casino referendum tanks. And he’ll have to endure the slings and arrows of Republicans and reformers if the congressional boundaries are overturned.

None is a pleasant prospect for O’Malley, particularly as he weighs his options for 2016. And sure, the pieces can slowly be picked up again, one by one. But these are all contentious issues he’d just as soon put behind him.

The ballot questions are worded so neutrally that it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re designed to do. And how many voters are going to work their way all the way down the ballot and figure out what the referenda are all about? It’s impossible to predict their fate.

O’Malley and Democratic leaders do have one thing going for them, though: The state Republican Party, as usual, has been AWOL on these ballot fights, and seems uniquely ill-equipped to reap the advantages if any of the referenda go down.

If there’s peril for O’Malley on the ballot at home, the election beyond Maryland’s borders offers little comfort.

As chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, O’Malley is watching races from coast to coast. And the prospects don’t look good.

Democrats are likely to lose the governor’s mansion in North Carolina for the first time in 24 years, and just the third time since 1900. In New Hampshire, where popular Democratic Gov. John Lynch is retiring, the election to replace him is a tossup. There’s also a tossup race in Montana, where Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), a potential O’Malley rival in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, is termed out. But the fundamentals in that state favor the GOP, and most of the political oxygen in there is being consumed by a bitter Senate race. In Washington State, the Democratic nominee, former Congressman Jay Inslee, is underperforming the presidential ticket, but he just may squeak through. The Democrats have zero pickup opportunities in gubernatorial elections this November.

These tepid results for Democrats may not reflect on O’Malley directly, but they sure don’t help him, either.

And then there’s the stunning political disintegration of Jimmy Obama, after O’Malley’s been one of his top surrogates.

We could anticipate Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980 a week or so out. But we had no idea it would turn into a rout, and the most astonishing thing that election night was seeing the Senate seats of George McGovern and Gaylord Nelson and Frank Church and Birch Bayh and John Culver and Warren Magnuson fall, one by one. Democrats may soon need to worry whether a similar bloodbath is looming.

If Obama loses, Martin O’Malley will surely be part of the conversation about what the party needs to do to pick up the pieces – and that will undoubtedly help his presidential aspirations. But is that a conversation any Democrat really wants to have?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Louie Louie

After the Blue Wave Crashes

The Impossible DREAM?

I’m Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille

A Conversation with Ken Ulman

The Future Is Now?

Michael Row the Boat Ashore

Influencers: The Readers Speak

Will Battaglia Run for AG in 2014?

Chrys-field

You Can Still Probably Bet Against Roscoe Bartlett