Josh Kurtz: Republicans At the Starting Gate

By Josh Kurtz

You had to feel sorry for Harford County Executive David Craig (R) last week.

On what was supposed to be his big coming-out party — the day he formally declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for governor — Craig was upstaged not once, but twice: first by the announcement that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) was naming Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) to be his running mate, later by reports that former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) was thinking about running for governor himself.

Even the weather didn’t cooperate — the homey, All-American tableau Craig had envisioned, with an announcement on his front porch, was forced indoors.

Craig may have to get used to such indignities.

Of course, that’s the usual lot for Maryland Republicans who want to run statewide. They’re often forgotten, ignored, belittled.

The irony is, Republicans seem to be waging their most intriguing gubernatorial primary since 1994. The problem for them is that it’s coinciding with what may be the Democrats’ most intriguing gubernatorial primary since 1994.

Craig especially has reason to feel aggrieved. After all, he’s the state’s senior Republican officeholder, with years of local government and legislative service under his belt.

Craig no doubt imagined himself coasting to the nomination while at the same time watching the Democrats claw each other’s eyes out. Now he’ll have to punch his way through a primary that could wind up being every bit as contentious as the Democrats’.

Craig will, at the very least, have to compete with Del. Ron George for the GOP nomination. George, an Annapolis jeweler, also entered the race last week. If it remains a two-man contest, it will surely be the only GOP primary in the country next year involving candidates with two first names.

Beyond that, there are subtle contrasts between Craig and George. Although their positions may not be terribly different, Craig has a lifetime of public service, between his time in politics and his work as an educator. George, with less than eight years in the legislature under his belt, will surely tout his business background. Both are fiscal conservatives; George, the father of six, is considered more of a social conservative, though how much he emphasizes that during the contest remains to be seen.

George could be helped in a primary by the fact that he hails from the biggest Republican-leaning county in the state. At the very least, his presence in the race complicates Craig’s ability to round up support from the GOP establishment. Now, many of George’s colleagues in the legislature and from Anne Arundel may be inclined to sit on the sidelines for a while rather than throwing their support behind Craig.

For Craig, who turns 64 on Wednesday, running for governor — and serving, if he’s successful — would be the culmination of a distinguished political career. George, who will turn 60 later this summer, surprised many of his fellow Republicans by seeking statewide office — even though his legislative district, courtesy of the Democrats, was essentially carved out from under him.

Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young, a social conservative and radio host, has been preparing to run for governor for months, and he’ll formally declare his plans in late summer. If he runs, he’ll be formidable in the GOP primary. He’s raised a lot of money and he’s adept at stirring conservative voters’ passions. But Republican insiders increasingly believe he’ll run for the new Frederick County executive post in 2014 instead of for governor, a race, in the general election at least, that appears more winnable for him.

Regardless of what Young does, another fiery social conservative is also likely to join the race — Charles Lollar, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, back in 2010. Lollar is a dynamic speaker who will throw party conservatives plenty of red meat; whether he’ll have the campaign organization and cash to compete with some of the other candidates remains to be seen.

Unlikely to run, after months of exploring the possibility, is Dan Bongino, the former Secret Service agent who was the party nominee against U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) in 2012. Bongino now, improbably, has his sights set on running for Congress in the 6th District, which takes in Western Maryland and part of Montgomery County. Bongino lives in Severna Park — so if he winds up the Republican nominee against freshman Rep. John Delaney (D), we could have a less than optimal situation in which both congressional nominees are unable to vote for themselves (Delaney‘s Potomac home is in Rep. Chris Van Hollen‘s district, though just by a few blocks).

Bongino and Lollar epitomize one of the problems afflicting today’s Maryland Republican Party. They’re talented young guys with potential. But they insist on entering politics at the highest level. They’d enjoy more success if they started out lower on the political food chain, getting some seasoning serving in the legislature or running for local office — and they’d arguably be helping their party a lot more if they took the long view.

And what of Michael Steele? Is he really thinking of running for governor? Yes! He’s been making calls to elected officials and money people, gauging potential support. But will he pull the trigger? Probably not.

Steele is one of the most skillful politicians in Maryland when it comes to creating buzz and calling attention to himself. But anyone who thinks this is just another attention-grabbing maneuver is mistaken. Steele already enjoys plenty of attention — national attention — with his MSNBC gig and the new public affairs shop he runs with Lanny Davis.

Steele really wants to serve in public office — and he’s looking for vindication. It irks him that the GOP cast him aside as Republican National Committee chairman after such a successful year at the polls in 2010 — especially after his successor, Reince Preibus, was granted a second term even after the GOP wipeout on the ballot last year. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Steele is looking for a way back into the political game.

But Steele is also nothing if not a realist. His much ballyhooed and well-funded Senate campaign in 2006 fell 10 points short. He knows the odds working against any Republican wanting to run statewide. He might be the favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination (Young has indicated he’d defer to Steele), but will probably conclude that the nomination is of little value.

Steele is also keenly aware of history. Part of his calculation in 2006 was that African-American voters would be dispirited if Kweisi Mfume lost the Democratic Senate primary and would turn to him over Ben Cardin in the general election. But black voters sided with Cardin anyway.

In 2014, Anthony Brown will be trying to become the state’s first African-American governor. If he wins the Democratic primary, it’ll be hard for Steele to compete in the general election. If Brown loses the nomination, history has already shown that black voters won’t turn to the GOP in droves, even if Republicans have an African-American nominee to offer as an alternative.

The fact remains in Maryland that the Republican nominee, whomever he turns out to be, could run a flawless campaign and still wind up with just 42 percent of the vote. Republicans need chaos and bitterness to reign on the Democratic side before they can even ponder the possibility of being competitive.

Not that it couldn’t happen next year — in fact, it probably will. But for now, the Democratic race remains the main event, and the Republican primary, with all due respect to the participants, just a sideshow.

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:

Gansler Hires Campaign Manager

Will 2014 Be a Republican Year Nationally — and in Maryland?

Back to the Future

Conviction Politics

Union Powerbroker Taking New Role

Why the Rush (Hour)?