Josh Kurtz: Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

By Josh Kurtz

Between the time you wake up this morning and the time you go to bed tonight, 11 political fundraisers will have taken place in Maryland.

Seven are being held at breakfast time within a two-block radius in Annapolis. More than 30 others were held between Jan. 2 and yesterday.

It’s hard to know whether this is a record-setting pace of political fundraising between New Year’s Day and the opening of the General Assembly session in Annapolis, when there’s always a scramble. But anecdotally, it sure feels that way.

And even if it isn‘t, the annual ritual of our lawmakers backing into the State House as they prepare to begin their work, palms extended, collecting every special interest dollar they can before the start of the session and the three-month ban on fundraising activity for state officials, is one of the most unseemly aspects of Maryland politics. Granted, it beats fundraising during the session — but surely the cutoff date ought to be sometime right before Christmas, to prevent this mad money dash just hours before the House and Senate are gaveled in.

If there is more pre-session fundraising than ever this year, there may be an explanation: the 2014 primaries are being held in late June rather than the traditional second Tuesday of September. It’s only a 10-week difference, but it’s likely to change everything.

Officially, the date was changed to accommodate a new federal law providing military and overseas voters sufficient time to receive absentee ballots and participate in party primaries. But it was easy to see political motivations as well: Democrats hope an earlier date will give them adequate time to unify in case there’s a vicious gubernatorial primary. And some Senate incumbents believe an earlier primary will make it tougher for their House colleagues to challenge them.

Both theories may prove to be true.

But it’s only beginning to dawn on Maryland politicians and operatives that the way they prepare for campaigns is going to change dramatically. Having 10 fewer weeks to prepare for the primary is going to alter the timetable for fundraising, for voter contact, for deploying media and volunteers, and for get-out-the-vote efforts. It’s going to change campaign finance reporting periods for next year — and how the reports themselves are interpreted. It’s going to have an impact on the way the media cover the campaigns.

It is entirely conceivable that at least a few incumbent lawmakers, so used to the luxury of not having to crank up their campaign operations until the summer, are going to get caught flat-footed. It’ll only dawn on them that their campaigns should be going at full speed after the legislative session ends in mid-April — and by then, it may be too late.

The filing deadline for candidates to run for state and local offices will be in late April 2014, just a week or two after the Annapolis session ends. For some candidates, when to file and formally announce their candidacies will be the first of many calculations and adjustments they’ll have to make because of the new timetable.

Among Democrats, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler are almost certain to run for governor, no matter what. But other candidates — like Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and a long shot, state Del. Heather Mizeur — are going to have to commit to that race, or figure out an exit strategy, sooner than they might otherwise. Consequently, you can expect to see them — and Gansler and Brown (the front runner in two early polls by double digits) — formally jump into the race soon, maybe right after this year’s session. Gubernatorial candidates are going to have to settle on their running mates earlier than usual, too.

For all the talk of how Annapolis incumbents routinely rig the system, the new timetable could benefit aggressive and well-funded legislative challengers. From January to April of next year, while the incumbents are tied up with their legislative work and banned from raising money, the challengers can be going door-to-door and holding fundraisers. That’s been the situation in the past, of course, but this time the incumbents will have less time after session to mobilize and catch up.

The new election calendar will also alter several popular Maryland political rituals. If the Maryland Municipal League holds its annual convention in late June next year, as it always does, chances are very few pols — besides the municipal officials themselves — will be making the trek to Ocean City. And by the time the Tawes crab feast and the MACo summer conference roll around in 2014, the primary will be over — changing the dynamic of those seminal political gabfests (though it also means aspiring statewide pols are more likely than ever to post in Crisfield and Ocean City in 2013).

Special interest groups will have to alter their timetable for meeting with candidates and parceling out endorsements. So will newspaper editorial boards.

And what will the summer of 2014 look like? Marylanders are used to short, spirited general elections in the gubernatorial cycle following primaries that tend to simmer all summer and then boil over right after Labor Day. But what will general elections that are 10 weeks longer than usual look like? Will candidates and their volunteers take a break? Or are voters now in store for a 17-week assault? And since primaries are more important than general elections in so many parts of the state, will it make any difference at all?

One thing we can say for sure: When political people observe that the next election in Maryland is just around the corner — for once, they’re telling the truth.

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:

Party Like It’s 1986

Sole Practitioner

Franchot to Seek Re-election, Won’t Run for Governor

No Heroes Here

Running Mates

Montgomery County’s 800-Pound Gorillas

Garagiola: ‘People Lose Elections All the Time’