In Blue State Turned Red, Former Candidate Says Low Turnout Reflects Dems' Failures

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Larry Hogan, left, governor-elect of Maryland, is shown a campaign rally at Patapsco Arena in Baltimore on Sunday, November 2, 2014. He is accompanied by New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. 

An earlier version of this essay appeared at The Huffington Post.

The national political red tide swept up the Chesapeake Bay, over the jetties of Spa Creek and up Annapolis's Main Street to the statehouse this week. After eight years of the Democratic administration of Governor Martin O'Malley and Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown—characterized by substantial progress on social issues—the Lieutenant Governor Hex landed squarely on Brown. A lieutenant governor has never succeeded his governor here; this year was no different.

In a day when fatigue with and anger at the Obama administration was evident across the country, one of the biggest surprises was here in Maryland. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by greater than 2 to 1, and where Republicans have been demoralized for years outside of their strongholds in the rural parts of the state, Republican Larry Hogan shocked everyone, including himself, not only by winning but doing so emphatically. Republicans picked up seven seats in the House of Delegates and two in the Senate, some of which was accomplished without much campaigning at all. U.S. Representative John Delaney, the wealthy incumbent Democrat in a district gerrymandered just two years ago, barely won, and even Rep. Chris Van Hollen, beloved of many in my home county, had a very hard time in his gerrymandered district. Maryland has one of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation, and has been ridiculed for it. The laugh may ultimately be on us.

Few expected this; as recently as a few days ago only a poll obtained by The Weekly Standard showed Hogan ahead, with all other, mostly older, polls showing a close race being won by Brown. Nate Silver gave him a 93 percent chance of winning. So, what happened?

What happened is what has been happening with increasing regularity since 2002 in Maryland—decreasing voter turnout. This year's primary turnout was the lowest ever in Montgomery County history; it cost me dearly in my race for the Democratic nomination for state Senate from District 18. Low turnout also cost Anthony Brown in the general election; he needed strong Democratic turnout in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, and Baltimore City, to overcome Hogan's advantages elsewhere with an energized Republican and independent electorate looking for blood.

He didn't get it. Rough numbers show that he lost by 77,000 votes. In 2010 Governor O'Malley, cruising to re-election, gained 110,000 more votes from Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City than Brown did this year. The Republican candidates had virtually identical totals in 2010 and 2014; the difference was in the Democratic turnout. Overall, the Republican ticket picked up 71,000 more votes, but the Democratic falloff was 274,000. Some commentators have massaged the numbers to make it appear that voters, even in the four heavily Democratic counties O'Malley won handily in 2010, preferred Hogan. Sorry, but that drop-off of 274,000 votes is real, and it was fatal. Those Democrats didn't vote for the Republican; they stayed home.

Those are stunning numbers, and the question is why. Granted, a midterm election isn't a presidential election, but in Maryland it's when we elect most state and local officials. And it clearly doesn't have the gravitas of an election like the recent Scottish referendum, where turnout was 84.6 percent. The Republican votes in Maryland can be ascribed to the same factors that turned the U.S. Senate Republican and elected a large number of Republican governors nationwide. The Democrats are another matter.

Anthony Brown is a very nice guy, but without passion or evidence of charismatic leadership. His campaign showed little grassroots or grasstops engagement, taking victory for granted. Primary challengers weren't asked to assist. Brown yard signs were few and far between, while Hogan signs sprouted throughout the heavily Democratic enclaves of downcounty Montgomery County.

The Democratic campaign had no message other than attacks on long-resolved social issues, which are set in the state and not in any risk of being undone. Those attacks did not sow fear in the Democratic base, but they distracted the lieutenant governor from engaging on the issues that matter—economic fairness. The overall apathy, created by a Democratic machine that does its best to stifle honest engagement on issues and refuses to embrace new generational blood, left most Democrats home, which showed in those stunning numbers.

Larry Hogan campaigned, as Republicans have been campaigning for decades, on the issue of taxes. Since no one, including progressives, likes to pay taxes, that is always an advantage. Democrats in Maryland have not learned how to message on economic fairness, because it's more difficult than simply mouthing "I will not raise taxes," but also because they don't care enough. The campaign for a minimum wage increase last year, while ultimately successful in broad outline, ran into Democratic resistance throughout the process. Every committee and every chamber that got its hands on the bill stripped out something important. This is not what struggling Marylanders want to see, but the incumbency protection machine, working with an unusual early primary schedule, did its best to minimize true progressive challenges. Even our progressive advocacy organizations, such as Progressive Maryland, endorsed the centrist Anthony Brown and dozens of other center-right Democrats simply because they were incumbents or they felt forced to do so, rather than sign on with challengers such as Delegate Heather Mizeur, who ran for governor as a true progressive.

I, too, am a true social and economic progressive, and campaigned as such. A national effort (most evident in New York with Governor Andrew Cuomo) is being made to redefine “progressive” by excluding economic issues, which have always been at the core of its meaning. If successful this would allow Democrats to campaign as progressives while continuing to exacerbate income and wealth inequality. It’s also important to note that being gay doesn't make you progressive. I work with a number of very committed, decent gay Republicans; they comprise 25-30 percent of the gay electorate based on recent presidential elections.

The fundamental lesson for Maryland Democrats is that you must stand for something, and that something better be what the citizens of this state want. They want economic fairness, and would be content to pay their taxes if they knew they were being spent wisely on things that improve their lives and those of their neighbors. It's the Democratic Party's responsibility to welcome new ideas, demand accountability, stand for progressive values and support those willing to serve the public as it deserves to be served.

 

Related: One Reason the Democrats Lost So Big in Midterms: Exceptionally Low Voter Turnout, by Sam Wang.

 

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