Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Maryland 2014: Really? Really, Michael?

Recently, I have been hearing another name drop into the 2014 gubernatorial pot with increasing frequency: former Lieutenant Governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

Steele’s name has been thrown into the speculative mix for several years now. However, two recent developments compelled me to opine on the subject.

First, Steele’s current email address has “2014” in it.  

Second, I'm aware that he's been telling people that some sort of comeback scenario might be in his future.

When I heard both of these tidbits, I reacted with the same degree of incredulity that The Hangover’s Phil did as he watched Alan urinating in the swimming pool of Michael Steele's one-time brother-in-law, Mike Tyson: “Really? Really, Alan?!”

Now, I have always found Steele a pleasant enough fellow, as well as a charismatic communicator with good TV presence. When he became head of the RNC, I was supportive, perhaps even to the point of being a little too optimistic as to his effectiveness.

However, as far as elective politics is concerned, Maryland has never been friendly territory for Steele, as two prior unsuccessful stand-alone bids for statewide office demonstrated.

Since then, Steele presided over a period of historic success for the GOP as RNC chairman – and still got fired from his post.  At this point, I see no evidence that the voters of Maryland take him any more seriously than the members of the RNC do. 

Indeed, Steele’s approval rating was down to 19 percent in Maryland according to a July 2010 poll.  The poll also showed him losing a rematch of his 2006 Senate race against Ben Cardin by 30 points, and had his approval among Republicans down to an anemic 42 percent.

And, that was before Steele’s public implosion at the RNC.

Still, Steele sees an opportunity to launch a political comeback in Maryland?

Really? Really, Michael?

Perhaps the most surprising thing: Most of my savvier GOP friends tend to agree with Steele.

Everyone I have asked seems to think that, if Steele enters the 2014 gubernatorial race, he will romp over his competition in the GOP primary. That is, if his entry into the race doesn’t deter them from running at all. 

By some accounts, many conservatives felt that former Governor Bob Ehrlich ignored them or took their support for granted. Many also objected to Ehrlich's perceived moderate stances.

By contrast, many of them were very fond of Steele when he was lieutenant governor. He engaged them and made them feel important and appreciated. Plus, they considered him a kindred conservative spirit on issues such as abortion. 

These lingering good feelings are certainly relevant. So is the name recognition element. Factor in Steele’s largely cordial relationship with the Tea Party movement, and perhaps he does have more juice than many give him credit for.

However, if Steele emerges as the party’s nominee in 2014, he would be easy pickings for whoever his Democratic opponent would be.

In addition to facing the institutional obstacles any Maryland Republican faces, Steele would have a difficult time taking advantage of the kind of change wave which typically follows eight years of an incumbent governor.

In addition to portraying Steele as a retread candidate in the Ross Z. Pierpont tradition, they would make his competence the central theme of the campaign.

They would remind voters of his ouster at the RNC, past questions about his personal and campaign finances and campaign missteps, and poor personnel decisions – such as devising a $15,000 a month make-work convention job for former Democratic legislative aide turned crony Belinda Cook.

(Speaking of Ms. Cook, who gets paid a $25,000 signing bonus to take a job which allows you the chance to hobnob with celebrities, employ your family members, and live in oceanfront splendor in Florida? Wouldn’t the perks and the salary normally be enough?)

I can hear the Democrats' sound bite now: "If Steele couldn't run the RNC, how can he run the State of Maryland?"

For Steele, it would be the proverbial death of a thousand cuts. He would be so busy defending his own past that it would negate his ability to criticize the establishment's record or articulate a credible and compelling vision for the future.

Bob Ehrlich’s defeat in 2010 gave Maryland Republicans a chance to turn the page, develop new talent, and build for the future. Nominating Michael Steele robs them of the opportunities a clean slate brings.

Today there are 40 more Republican elected officials in Maryland than there were a year ago. It’s time to start developing that talent rather than mining the past.

I wish the best for Steele. But I think the best thing for him to do is remain on the pundit’s circuit. He's pretty good at it. Plus, it’s in his personal interest, as well as in the interest of Maryland’s GOP.

Once you’ve endured the Titanic, why ever would you want to book passage on the Lusitania?

(By the way, as for Ms. Cook, I hear she is back working for Steele. Let me see: A former political staffer relying on a retired elected official as a source of last-ditch employment. Now where have I heard that before?)

Monday, September 26, 2011

The "Dialin' Doc" Returns...Sorta

So, it looks like Eric “The Dialin’ Doc” Wargotz is running for U. S. Senate next year.

Well, kind of...maybe.

That’s what I took away from the statement which he posted on Facebook Sunday afternoon amid a busy day of football.

When I first started reading it, it seemed like a declaration of candidacy. Then I reached this part:

"My core campaign team and I have been carefully evaluating whether to formally enter (sic) the 2012 election cycle. As I continue to travel around the great State of Maryland and to reach out across this great Nation trying to gauge potential support for another run, I am encouraged! We are not there yet."

The pathologist turn pol goes onto explain: “I cannot and you would not want me to make such a commitment to enter the 2012 U.S. Senate race, blindly. That is why I call on you now to do what you have done before and that is to support me as you did in 2010."

So this is a quid pro quo announcement. Start giving me money, then I will run.

Wargotz is like the swimmer who dips his big toe in the pool before deciding to take the plunge. Or perhaps he is Peter Pan exhorting the audience to cheer for Tinkerbell before his candidacy can roar back to life.

All kidding aside, I think Dr. Wargotz is a good guy (working for him helped me understand what Lady Gaga was singing about in “Telephone,” but I digress) and definitely the kind of moderate, serious Republican the party should be nominating for statewide office.

I’m just not sure how valuable a commodity the GOP nomination for United States Senate will be in Maryland in 2012.

Additionally, I was interested in Wargotz’s reference to his “core campaign team.” I know several people (personally or through Facebook) who worked for him last time. To my knowledge, none of them is part of this “core” group to which he refers.

To this new group I extend best wishes and a bit of advice: Make sure your cellular plan calls for unlimited minutes. You’ll need every one of ‘em.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"One Legislator, One District"

Jacob Shade, an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, penned this excellent op-ed discussing the practice of three-member legislative districts in Maryland, and advocating for a change to single member districts.

This is a good read for those of us who are reform-minded and looking to publicize the institutional tricks the political establishment in Maryland uses to win and retain power.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

David Craig Talks About 2014

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with some of my fellow bloggers and political junkies for a conversation with Harford County Executive David Craig over burgers at the Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis.

The big news coming out of the gathering: Craig is definitely running for some statewide office in 2014. He’s not an attorney, so that leaves two choices: comptroller or governor.

David Craig's new campaign logo. Race TBD.

David Craig is presently the party’s senior executive officeholder, as well as one of the party’s logical go-to guys for 2014. As far as which office he plans to seek, Craig said he has deferred that decision until after next year’s presidential election.

Despite kicking in and around Maryland political circles for a long time, I had never met Craig before.  I found him to be relaxed, thoughtful, and – most importantly – open-minded as to the GOP’s prospects for success in 2014.  

Going into this event, I was most interested to see how he would address this final issue. Bob Ehrlich’s 15 point blowout loss in 2010, as well as Democratic gains in voter registration during the past 10 years, has left many Republicans wondering just what the party’s short-term future may be in Maryland.

But Craig took these ponderings in stride. “A lot of people I talk to tell me they’re willing to vote for good Republican candidates,” he stated.

He noted that the party gained 40 seats at the local level (“We wiped out the Democrats’ farm team” in every jurisdiction but Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, he noted) and pointed out that Republican candidates achieved a win (in 2002) and an almost win (in 1994) the last two times they competed for an open gubernatorial seat.

He also indicated his belief that a candidate’s geography may trump his/her party affiliation as a deciding factor in state elections. With three of the Democrats most frequently mentioned as gubernatorial candidates hailing from the Washington region, Craig see real opportunity for a candidate coming from a jurisdiction as decidedly suburban Baltimore as Harford County.

I think this is a valid point. However, I had the same feeling about incumbency trumping party affiliation when it came to Bob Ehrlich’s reelection prospects in 2006, and we know how that turned out.  

Setting aside my skepticism about any GOP candidate winning statewide in Maryland, I think Craig has a lot to offer.

First, he projects an image of a quiet, roll-up-your-sleeves, git ‘er done kind of manager. After eight years of muscle-shirted, guitar-playing Governor Martin O’Malley and publicity friendly Comptroller Peter Franchot, voters may be ready for a governor or comptroller with a reputation for understated competence.

Second, Craig has an asset which neither Bob Ehrlich nor Ellen Sauerbrey did when they ran for statewide office: Previous executive branch experience.

Craig served as mayor of Havre de Grace before he became Harford County Executive, and also headed both the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties. He is also a veteran of both houses of the legislature, giving him prior relationships with the Maryland General Assembly he can leverage as either governor or comptroller.

Third, Craig’s background as an educator – he was assistant principal at three Harford County schools – and history of civic involvement makes him difficult for the left to demonize. He can portray himself as an engaged community activist who entered the political arena, as opposed to yet another high climbing politician looking for the next rung on the ladder.

Aside from being a Republican, the fact that few people outside of Harford County have ever heard of Craig is his single biggest strategic challenge. His natural, low key style as a candidate and a manager may exacerbate this challenge. But I think that Craig’s relative absence of flash can be turned into an asset with some clever positioning on the part of his handlers. That, in turn, will hinge upon how successful their fundraising efforts will be.

If history is any guide, 2014 looks like it will be an anti-establishment year. Maryland voters will be restless after eight years of Martin O’Malley, just as they were after eight years of William Donald Schaefer and Parris Glendening. Plus, if President Obama is reelected in 2012 and experiencing the traditional mid-term slump that most presidents do, a Republican like Craig could benefit from these anti-incumbent forces.

To do so, however, he must be able to articulate a case as to why he is the real change Maryland needs. Otherwise, a wily Democrat like Peter Franchot or Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (who would appeal to many of the same suburbanites David Craig would) may step up and snatch the change mantle out from under him.

Any Republican who looks to move up in Maryland has an arduous road ahead of them. I am glad County Executive Craig seems undaunted by the challenge. I look forward to seeing what path he ultimately chooses, and where it takes him.