What’s Next for Maryland Democrats?


Despite its reputation as a deep blue state, a status apparently reconfirmed by Hillary Clinton’s decisive victory in this month’s Presidential Election, there are some ominous signs for the party that has long dominated Maryland politics.

Clinton’s win, large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, holding nine of ten seats in Congress and a big advantage in voter registration might lead some to the conclusion that everything is really okay.  As tempting and comfortable as avoiding reality often is, the risks could be significant as we move into the 2018 election season.

Was Larry Hogan’s victory in the 2014 Gubernatorial race just an anomaly, the result of a weak opponent who failed to energize the party base?  That’s certainly a partial explanation, but it fails to take into account Hogan’s appeal to more conservative working class Democrats and his considerable political skills.  The incumbent will be a formidable candidate for reelection regardless of who runs against him.

The last time there was a Republican governor, two strong challengers, Martin O’Malley and Doug Duncan, were campaigning well before the 2006 election.  While there are several Democratic names in the mix this time, it’s not yet apparent that any of them has support beyond their geographical base.  That could change, but until someone emerges as a clear frontrunner, Hogan can continue to pick fights with the leadership of the General Assembly.  That’s a public relations battle that he, or any governor, wins every time.

The election of Donald Trump as this country’s next president has been seen by some analysts as creating a more difficult political environment for Hogan’s reelection bid.  That view assumes that Trump will be highly unpopular by 2018 and that there will be a backlash against Republicans as a result.  Although that could happen, it disregards another Trump phenomenon.

Just like Hogan, Trump appealed to voters that the Democratic Party has failed to attract or, quite honestly, hasn’t even tried to reach.  As a number of states showed during the presidential election, party registration is not a reliable indicator of how people will actually vote.  Will Maryland revert to an earlier norm in the 2018 Gubernatorial election or is the state in the process of realigning?

One challenge for Democrats figuring out how to respond to a political environment in flux is a leadership cadre that has been in place for a long time.  The Washington Post, among others, recently noted that the three top Democratic officials in the House of Representatives are all in their mid to late 70s.  Regardless of their policy positions or their political skills, they have presided over a loss of majority status, posed a bottleneck to the advancement of younger members and are seen, fairly or unfairly, as highly partisan.

While it will be uncomfortable for many Maryland Democrats, the same questions need to be asked about the leadership in the General Assembly.  It’s hard to imagine two leaders more skilled or more successful in passing legislation that had the support of large majorities of Marylanders than Mike Miller and Mike Busch.  They truly deserve widespread thanks, applause and praise.

However, their longevity in office and their control over their respective chambers have hampered the rise of younger members who would bring  different perspectives to the legislature.  Moreover, some of the committee chairs, hand selected by the presiding officers, have held their positions beyond the “Best if used by___” date.

You can certainly argue that you shouldn’t try to fix something that isn’t clearly broken.  At a superficial level, everything looks just fine in the world of Maryland Democrats, particularly when compared to the loss of hundreds of Democratic legislative seats and governors’ offices in other states.  The outcome of the presidential election, however, suggest that we are entering a new and uncertain period in politics in this country.

To win back control of the Federal Government and of state governments, the Democratic Party is going to need to revitalize its message, its outreach to constituencies that it has ignored and its leadership. Just because the situation in Maryland does not seem dire is no excuse for ignoring warning signs that are everywhere on the horizon.

If a sports analogy helps to make the point, think about the baseball team that holds onto its aging stars too long,  doesn’t invest in its farm system, and fails to recognize the need for a transition until it’s too late.

What Maryland Democrats need now is a healthy debate about the future.  They don’t need anointed candidates for office, but instead should encourage vigorous competition for its nominations.  Younger office holders need to be given leadership opportunities.  The search for the next generation of candidates needs to be open and inclusive.  The party needs to focus on addressing and solving problems, not on cobbling together voter groups.

Or Maryland Democrats can keep doing what they have in the past and hope for the best.