Josh Kurtz: You Can’t Spell ‘Meme’ Without M-E

By Josh Kurtz

What a difference one election makes.

Just a few months ago, Maryland’s Democratic establishment was reeling from state Sen. Rob Garagiola’s drubbing in the 6th congressional district primary. Renegade Democrats like Congresswoman Donna Edwards and Comptroller Peter Franchot were only too happy to gloat that their man, investment banker John Delaney, beat Garagiola by 25 points.

Add to that the meltdown in the final days of the legislative session in Annapolis, when leaders were unable to agree on a suite of budget, tax and gambling proposals, and the empire seemed, if not on the verge of collapsing, at least on the verge of yielding several strongholds to the rebel army.

Last week, order was restored. The palace remains impenetrable, for now. The state Democratic establishment, aided by money, brute force and, oh yes, being on the right side of history in at least a couple of instances, as even brutish empires sometimes are, was able to push through all its ballot questions. Democratic leaders also produced a smashing victory in Maryland for President Obama — and contributed to his wins in Virginia and Pennsylvania — and outrageously lopsided victories in seven of eight congressional districts and in the Senate race.

It just goes to show what the establishment can accomplish when it has its act together. (Of course, it helped that pushing for marriage equality and the DREAM Act was the right thing to do — and that the opposition that petitioned the issues to the ballot in the first place was AWOL all fall, Blair Lee‘s denunciation of anal sex notwithstanding.)

Democrats’ secret weapon was John McDonough, the wily secretary of State, who wrote — or at least approved — the language voters saw as they went into the voting booth and considered each ballot question.

Most brilliant of all was the language on the question of whether to throw out the state’s highly-gerrymandered congressional map. You’d never know from the way it was worded that Maryland’s districts are, in the opinion of at least one independent analyst, the least compact of any in the country. In fact, the question read like an imperative — you’d better approve it, because the Census dictates that it must be so. What’s evident now is that John Sarbanes, and probably John Delaney, owe McDonough very generous Christmas gifts for the foreseeable future.

It should surprise no one that the Republicans were no match for the Democratic machine operating at full throttle this fall. But the spectacular defeats of seven GOP congressional candidates — including a 10-term congressman and two senior state legislators running as more-credentialed-than-usual challengers — suggest that the Democratic mapmakers weren’t bold enough when they marked Roscoe Bartlett for extinction. If each Democratic House member had agreed to give up just a little bit more favorable territory — the Baltimore guys in particular — they might have had a legitimate shot at Andy Harris as well. Oh well — a 7-1 Democratic map for the next decade isn’t bad, even if a decade of Harris, unfettered by electoral considerations, is.

Much has been made about what a good election night it was for Gov. Martin O’Malley, and that’s undeniable. He can proudly say Maryland was at the forefront of progressive thinking by voting for gay marriage and the DREAM Act. There will doubtless be financial payoffs for O’Malley from generous national gay donors should he run for president.

Even if the gambling vote didn’t go off as smoothly as he might have liked — and the tax breaks for millionaire casino moguls, feh! — it did pass, meaning O’Malley can put it behind him and continue to advance the politically attractive meme that Maryland invests in its schools, whatever the cost. And remember, casino moguls are generous political donors as well. (No doubt they will find ways around the state campaign finance restrictions placed on them with passage of the casino expansion legislation this summer.)

Let’s just hope for O’Malley’s sake that crap games aren’t his ultimate legacy — and that bringing a full casino to Prince George’s County, where prominent former elected officials are already behind bars, doesn’t produce more of the same.

Some pundits have suggested that the Democratic rebels — Edwards, Franchot et al — were big losers last week. But that may be overblown.

When you’re a rebel, you expect to take some hits. For Franchot in particular, his work to defeat the gambling referendum and the congressional map carries forward the meme that he’s a reformer. And by our rough calculation, Franchot was on TV somewhere in Maryland every 12.7 seconds during the last few weeks of the campaign, in ads attempting to debunk the notion that more gambling means more education funding.

If Franchot suffers any injury from being on the losing end of gambling and redistricting, the blow was delivered, however improbably, by state Sen. Ed DeGrange, heretofore not known for his pithiness, when he said Franchot had become “the comptroller of West Virginia.” That classic comment, rather than the losses themselves, could be dredged up by a political opponent in 2014.

But TV exposure is TV exposure, and Franchot was one of several ambitious pols who benefited from frequent appearances in ads for or against the various referenda — appearances that, best of all, did not cost any of them a dime. O’Malley, Anthony Brown, Rushern Baker, Ken Ulman and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake all logged significant time in our living rooms.

This naturally made the absence of Attorney General Doug Gansler and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz from the ads — or in many cases, from any element of the fall campaign — somewhat puzzling. Gansler has a body of work, and priorities he’s associated with. But at some point soon, he’s going to have to weigh in more forcefully on more of the issues of the day — the issues sure to confront the next governor.

Meanwhile, tribute must be paid to two less heralded Election Day winners: strategists Martha McKenna and Jason Waskey. Both have been praised in this space before, but they deserve kudos again.

Baltimore-based McKenna, with newborn daughter in tow, presided over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure campaign, which produced a surprising number of victories in what looked to be a very tough cycle — and a record number of women will now be serving in the U.S. Senate. She also helped save veteran New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who was facing her first competitive race in more than two decades.

Waskey, the state director for Obama’s re-election campaign, was an important cog in the what may be the greatest political operation in modern American history, an organization built to last beyond the political career of its principal. On the morning after the election, Waskey penned an extraordinary 1,500-word letter of thanks to “Team Maryland,” full of praise for hardworking volunteers, specific details on the things they achieved, a look ahead to upcoming policy battles, and hope for the future. It was a classy move — and says something both about the man and the leave-no-stone-unturned operation he worked for. Campaign managers of the future should study it to learn how to motivate the troops.

But even if harmony has been restored among Maryland Democrats, it may not last. With Nancy Pelosi expected to step down as leader of the House Democrats any day now — caveat: she was also expected to step down after the 2010 elections and didn’t — the biggest impediment to Steny Hoyer’s desire to move up to the top slot may be his fellow Marylander, Chris Van Hollen. Van Hollen is one of a handful of younger House Democrats who could wind up challenging Hoyer for the minority leader slot if Pelosi moves on — or he could join a “ticket,” headed by the more senior Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, possibly as minority whip.

Hoyer is well respected in the Democratic caucus. He has paid his dues and has many, many chits to collect. But the simple fact is that he is significantly to the right of the majority of the caucus, and his colleagues may be reluctant to reward a deal-maker at a time of unprecedented partisanship.

A Hoyer-Van Hollen mano-a-mano, though it would largely be waged behind the scenes on Capitol Hill, could divide the state Democratic leadership like nothing before. And a Hoyer loss would be a far greater blow to the establishment than Rob Garagiola’s piddling primary defeat.

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:

Opening Day

Duncan Moving Closer to Comeback Bid

A Perfect (Political) Storm Hits Prince George’s

Sail Away

Nov. 6 Could Spell Trouble for Top Maryland Dems

Louie Louie

After the Blue Wave Crashes

The Impossible DREAM?

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

A Conversation with Ken Ulman