Turnout in Va. Primaries Emboldens Md. Dems Looking Ahead to 2018

By Bruce DePuyt

Maryland Democrats will run a fierce campaign next year against an incumbent whose name sounds familiar, though he’s never actually run for office.

This fellow’s name?

“Gov. Larryhogan Anddonaldtrump.”

No, Gov. Anddonaldtrump was not the GOP nominee in 2014. Nor did he score an upset victory over a sitting lieutenant governor in an overwhelming Democratic state. And he’s not serving as governor now.

Never mind all that. If anything is clear from the primary election results in Virginia last week, it’s that Democrats will do everything in their power to tie Larry Hogan to a president viewed by many as an incompetent, thin-skinned hate monger.

Consider the big number coming out of the Old Dominion last week: Turnout in the Democratic primary set a record. More than 540,000 voters cast ballots in the race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello. That’s a whopping 70 percent more votes than were cast in the Creigh Deeds/Terry McAuliffe/Brian Moran race just two cycles ago.

Seventy percent. This, despite the fact that “on paper the race was pretty vanilla,” in the view of former Maryland Lt. Governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and others. And yet, Steele says, “voters saw something in that election and in these candidates that made them turn out the way they did.”

And that something was simmering rage with a norm-busting president whose job-approval ratings are in the toilet.

“The turnout was up because politics is governing the day,” former Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) tells Maryland Matters. “For better or worse, Trump has kept politics on the front burner.”

Before last Tuesday, political insiders believed that a big turnout would benefit the upstart, Perriello. It did not.

Northam, running with the backing of party leaders in the establishment lane, won easily. Despite a late Perriello charge, Northam reclaimed momentum after reaffirming his anti-Trump bona fides. How? Mostly with an attention-getting TV spot that blanketed the airwaves near Election Day, in which he called the president “a narcissistic maniac.”

So now attention turns to the upcoming gubernatorial primary in Maryland, a race that could see a large field of Democratic candidates toe the starting line (including Gansler).

Both Steele and Gansler see the Virginia race as a reinforcement of the notion that, as the former AG put it, “the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton election still seems to be lingering, unfortunately. We need to move beyond that.”

“What you saw in Virginia on the Democratic side was the cathartic need for the Bernie Sanders wing, for lack of a better term, to have its voice heard. … The question, then, is how do you reintegrate the Bernie Sanders faction, which wants to be heard and needs to be heard, into the big tent?”

Steele sees it somewhat differently:  “There’s a general view that someone like (former NAACP head) Ben Jealous, who is clearly carrying the progressive banner, could have a clearer shot at the nomination for governor” because of how energized progressives are.

On the GOP side in Virginia, former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie narrowly survived a scare from Trump supporter Corey Stewart, a sign that the pro- and anti-Trump factions among GOP voters Virginia are equally strong. Maryland Republicans, by contrast, enter 2018 united behind Hogan. They have their man, a popular incumbent seeking a second term, so they will be spared the intra-party brawl they just witnessed across the river, at least at the top of the ticket — though there could be some tense, ideologically-driven GOP primaries in Maryland farther down the ballot.

Whether Maryland Democrats can tie the current resident of the governor’s mansion to the unpopular president is certain to be a — though by no means the only — deciding factor of next November’s contest.

Which is where “Governor Larryhogan Anddonaldtrump” comes in. Expect to hear that name again and again.

If Maryland sees a record turnout next November, Hogan could be, like the last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, one and done. But Steele likes the incumbent’s chances:  “He’s got a body of accomplishments. (Voters) know he’s not a Trump Republican. They appreciate and like that. Will there be some sticky moments? Yes. But Larry has the advantage of just being himself.”

“He should be fine.”

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