Democrats Look To 2010 And Beyond

July 14, 2009|By Thomas F. Schaller

Before 2006, there was a logjam of ambitious Democrats at the top of the Maryland political hierarchy. That year, some of the pressure was released thanks to four developments.

First, the retirement of the state's longest-serving U.S. senator, Paul Sarbanes, allowed Rep. Ben Cardin to bid for and win the seat held by Mr. Sarbanes, whose son John took Mr. Cardin's seat.

Then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's victory over incumbent Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., offered a second release valve. The Democratic gubernatorial primary drew Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan into the fray, creating a path for council member Isiah Leggett to run and win the county executive spot. (Four years earlier, Mr. Ehrlich's victory freed the state's second congressional seat, into which then-Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger promptly slid.)

FOR THE RECORD - A column Thursday by Thomas F. Schaller included incorrect dates for upcoming gubernatorial elections in Maryland. Those elections will be held in 2010 and 2014.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

A third development was state Del. Peter Franchot's bold primary challenge of then-Comptroller and former Democratic governor William Donald Schaefer. Though Mr. Franchot couldn't know upon announcing that Mr. Schaefer would later damage himself by publicly harassing a young, female state employee, Mr. Franchot eked out a victory in the three-way primary and won the general election, thus satisfying his ambitions for higher office - at least for a while.

Finally, Democratic attorney general Joe Curran retired, opening the only other statewide elected office to competition. Another smart, young and aggressive Democratic pol, Montgomery County State's Attorney Doug Gansler, leapt at that opportunity and won.

And so, for a brief moment at least, everybody in elite Democratic circles breathed a bit easier.

Last week came word that Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith will not seek to challenge Mr. Franchot in next year's Democratic primary. The news eased slightly the not-so-secret tensions between the governor - a close ally of Mr. Smith - and the comptroller.

Still, the Smith-Franchot episode is a reminder that pressure is again building at the top levels inside the state Democratic Party. Barring some cataclysm, Mr. O'Malley will be the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2012, of course. But there are rumblings already about who will be best positioned to be the 2016 nominee.

Along with Messrs. Smith, Franchot and Gansler, that not-so-small list includes Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. Perhaps former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume will try to build upon his solid 2006 Senate primary effort.

And these are the just the tensions on the executive side of the ledger. The field of pols who may be privately harboring legislative dreams of ascending to the U.S. senate seat currently occupied by Barbara Mikulski is also rather crowded.

But potential aspirants such as House members Chris Van Hollen, Elijah Cummings, Mr. Ruppersberger and maybe even freshman Donna Edwards will apparently have to wait. Mrs. Mikulski, despite the lack of a formal announcement so far, has made it clear she is running for a fifth term. She is the most popular politician in the state and has amassed a campaign war chest of more than $1 million.

And rather than attempt the politically futile task of challenging Mrs. Mikulski, ambitious Democrats would be wise to wait for her to run once more, even if she decides not to complete her term, giving Governor O'Malley - presuming the economy doesn't pull him under - the power to pick her replacement.

Why? Because 2010 could provide a mild Republican tailwind nationally, and Mr. Ehrlich - who probably, and rightly, sees himself as more of legislator than executive - would present a formidable challenge to whomever the Democrats might nominate.

In any case, assuming Ms. Mikulski goes through with her plans to take one more lap, 2010 is likely to be a hold-steady cycle for Democrats. There just isn't much room to maneuver, and primary fights against incumbents usually don't turn out as well as they did for Mr. Franchot in the 2006 comptroller's race. There will still be ample jockeying to gain later advantage, of course - just not much movement in the actual offices held.

The real cycle to watch is 2014. But even for political junkies like me, that's too far off to start speculating much for now.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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