Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Democrats, 2014, and "Gubernatorial Wars"

So it is time to check in on the 2014 gubernatorial race, specifically on the Democratic side.

In the past I blogged about two of the candidates who, in my opinion, are potentially best positioned to take advantage of what I think will be a change election cycle – Comptroller Peter Franchot and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. But this time I’m going to look at the entire Democratic field, and I’m going to do it a little differently.

I tend to be a big fan of TV shows that somehow involve the hunt for and sale of collectible items. You probably know these shows I’m taking about: Pawn Stars, American Pickers, American Restoration, Auction Kings, Auction Hunters.

(Of these, American Pickers is probably my favorite, probably due to the presence of tattooed hotness Danielle Colby Cushman. But I digress.)

Anyone, one of these shows – Storage Wars on the A& E Network – involves people competing for the contents of abandoned storage units in California. One of the gimmicks of the show is that the four main stars each have a shorthand brand name to distinguish them from the other characters.

For example, one of the bidders – a guy who bids based on his gut decisions – is called “The Gambler.” The man with an auction company who likes to push other bidders around with his wallet is “The Mogul.” The younger guy with the attractive wife/business partner is “The Young Gun.” And the older, wealthy guy who goes to storage auctions as a hobby is the “The Collector.”

Anyway, this got me thinking…looking at the four Democratic gubernatorial aspirants, and the pre-2014 positioning that is going on among them, I was wondering how best to characterize each one, and the role they will occupy on the 2014 political landscape, using the Storage Wars model.

Here is what I came up with.

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, “The Establishment”

Brown’s candidacy represents a potential continuation of the O’Malley – Brown political regime. To date, Brown has done nothing to dissuade this emerging perception, as this invitation from an event last December hosted by Governor O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor StephanieRawlings-Blake illustrates. The list of highly recognizable names comprising the Host Committee reflects a cross-section of the Democratic establishment, and includes many consistent backers of Governor O’Malley.

Running with the establishment’s imprimatur carries benefits in terms of organization, fundraising, and building a sense of inevitability (Think Mitt Romney).

But it also brings liabilities, especially if O’Malley fatigue reigns in 2014. The price of Brown’s blessing by the establishment will be his having to defend a whole lot of unpopular decisions, some involving higher taxes, from which his opponents, with varying degrees of credibility, are able to distance themselves.

But Brown’s establishment cred goes beyond his O’Malley pedigree. The loyalty of black voters – presently 29 percent of the state’s population – constitutes one of the supporting pillars of Democratic rule in Maryland. Running as the perceived candidate of the state’s black establishment in a three or four way contested primary certainly could benefit Brown.

But, Brown’s race does not automatically guarantee that such a perception will necessarily coalesce around him. Black voters support white Democratic candidates in Maryland all the time. As Lieutenant Governor, Brown has largely been overshadowed by O’Malley and has not, as far as I can tell, begun to develop an independent public persona. In other words, it is very likely that black voters may perceive Brown as the “O’Malley candidate” before anything else. And there is a perception that Brown’s support in his native Prince George’s County may not be as solid as it likely needs to be.

Perhaps the most important fact of all to consider: no Lieutenant Governor has ever been elected governor. The three who tried – Blair Lee, Mickey Steinberg, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend – all ran as establishment agents during change election cycles. In most places in America, it is hard for the same party to hold power for longer than eight years. In Maryland, that may not be true for Democrats, but it is true for the subgroup of personalities closely associated with a given administration. If history is any guide, Brown has the most daunting headwinds facing him.

Attorney General Doug Gansler, “The Progressive”

Gansler is an establishment figure, too. The big difference is that he represents the progressive ideological establishment from which Governors O’Malley and Glendening, and most Democratic members of Congress and the legislature have come, as opposed to the political establishment personified by Martin O’Malley and Anthony Brown. Of course, there is ideological overlap between the camps, but Gansler was elected and unanimously reelected on his own. He has his own constituency, as well as the opportunity to craft his own public image.

Most of the time, it is safe, perhaps even smart politics in Maryland for upwardly-mobile progressives to align themselves with certain touchstone issues: marriage equality, environmentalism, healthcare, animal rights, and consumer protection. Based on a review of press releases issued from the Attorney General’s office, that is what Gansler has done. In addition to concentrating on and communicating activities important to progressives, Gansler has quietly raised money – an activity made easier by the MD GOP’s failure to recruit an opponent against him.

To me, Gansler’s strategy is one of classic self-positioning using the progressive playbook. Will it work in a change election cycle? I guess it all comes down to whether progressives are enthusiastic enough to go to the polls in 2014. Will they be if Obama is reelected and hits the traditional six-year slump many other presidents have? Will two years of a President Romney be enough to counter O’Malley fatigue? Will Gansler’s campaign money talk in 2014, or will it shout? Stay tuned.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, “The Dissenter”

Peter Franchot is an interesting case. An unapologetically progressive Takoma Park legislator, since becoming comptroller he has hugged the political center, emerging as Governor O’Malley’s resident foil in Annapolis on a number of issues, especially taxes.

I struggled with how to label him. The term “maverick” seems over-utilized these days, so I decided to go with “dissenter,” as it is often used to describe people who were part of a regime or institution before breaking from it.

As I have written before, the sheer brazenness of turning a bomb-throwing progressive legislator into a cautious, responsible executive intrigues me. Using history as a guidepost, the comptroller and his team have sensed the direction in which the state’s political winds are headed, and have wisely positioned themselves to catch the breeze.

So can Franchot pull this perception migration off? As far as I can tell, he already has. Indeed, any attempt to use his voting record against him would likely backfire – at least in the primary – because it would reassure skeptical progressives as to his core values.

Still, progressive voters drive the outcome of Democratic primaries in Maryland. So, looking at it from a mathematical perspective, I’m curious to see if Franchot can build the primary coalition he needs. That requires holding onto enough progressives while attracting the kinds of centrist to center-right Democrats to whom his message as comptroller has been focused.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, “TBD”

From my perspective, together Brown, Gansler, and Franchot add up to a pretty crowded Democratic primary field. But 2014 is a lifetime away in politics, so it is still possible for the well-regarded Ulman to find his niche on the gubernatorial landscape. What exactly that niche is, however, depends upon subsequent events.

I see two possibilities.

First, Ulman could position himself as “The Outsider.” After all, he’s young, suburban, a local official, and a good government guy. Democratic voters upset with Annapolis in a monolithic sense could find an acceptable alternative in someone who has never been part of that scene.

Still, I wonder if there is room for both “The Outsider” and “The Dissenter” in the 2014 Democratic contest.

Despite being part of the Annapolis world for decades, Franchot has emerged as its most prominent critic, as the widespread attention the media gave to his denunciation of the special session illustrates. Given the choice between two change agents, voters may opt for the one who already knows the ropes.

But that still leave Ulman another option: “The Alternative.” And, by that, I mean the establishment’s alternative to Anthony Brown.

Ulman has never shirked from his admiration for Governor O’Malley, with whom he shares a number of prominent supporters. Indeed, I know of one prominent lobbyist/former O’Malley aide who helped Ulman raise money.

Brown has a tenuous hold on the establishment crowd’s support, but it is up to him to sustain it. If he falters or questions about his viability arise, Ulman seems well-positioned to benefit.

Anyway, that is my take. I will take a closer look at the GOP side of the race in the next few weeks. Len Lazarick at Maryland Reporter did a piece recently which I think nicely summarizes where things stand as of now. Since that piece ran, another candidate has announced, and I heard about another – a well-known member of the Baltimore business community – who is allegedly drawing chatter. But I want to see how things shake out before handicapping my own peeps, so to speak.

In the meantime, the new season of Storage Wars starts next Tuesday. As for Gubernatorial Wars, you will have to wait a few years before knowing who wins that one. 


  1. Some people are floating the idea of Mizeur too, but I don't buy it...

  2. Great stuff. My only question/critique would be to note that KKT made it through the Dem primary (with 80% of the vote) and only lost to the "change" cycle once it made it to the General. Admittedly, there was only one Dem challenger, but it still bears noting, especially since good money is on the Dem's holding Governor, once they decide who their candidate will be.

    Thanks for the great post.

  3. Arch Stanton31 May, 2012 10:33

    Well put with a couple of notations: First, I'd take Brandi (the Young Gun's hottie wife) over Picker's Danielle anyday... With the Baltimore County Lincoln Day Dinner competing with the season opener of Storage Wars, it's a good thing I have DVR...

  4. As always, great analogies and well-written, thoughtful insights.