Commentary: Rushern Baker, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats’ Dilemma

By Josh Kurtz

I’ve been having a hard time separating Rushern Baker’s announcement this week that he is running for governor with the Democrats’ deflating defeat in a special congressional election in Georgia – events that occurred just hours apart.

Baker no doubt deserves better.

He is a genuine top-tier contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and as Prince George’s County executive and a former state legislator, he has the kind of pedigree that Maryland voters often seek in their governors.

Moreover, Baker is a good guy with compelling personal and political stories. He can give a great speech, and exudes both passion and personal warmth.

Though there are still far too many negative headlines about Prince George’s than Baker and county boosters would like, the county has undeniably undergone a transformation for the better during Baker’s tenure as executive and is on the road to economic parity with its more affluent neighbors. And Prince George’s makes a formidable political base, both in a Democratic primary and a general election.

But if there’s a rap on Baker, it’s that his political instincts and political operation aren’t as sharp as they ought to be. Sound ideas can be doomed by lack of preparation or follow-up. Fundraising – unfortunately an important skill for aspirants to high office – isn’t a strong suit. A certain killer instinct, another essential at the highest level of politics, is often missing.

I guess this is why I’ve been thinking about Baker’s announcement for governor in the context of the Democrats’ latest flame-out at the national level.

Almost eight months after Donald Trump’s stunning election, Democrats are still reeling. The finger-pointing hasn’t really ended, and the fissures that defined the 2016 Democratic presidential primary still exist. Democrats still can’t figure out how they lost Middle America and why the enthusiasm that propelled Barack Obama to two terms hasn’t materialized since.

Democrats and progressives are plenty energized now, thanks to Trump, but after a season of special House races it’s clear they haven’t yet figured out how to harness that energy and win tough elections.

This ought to make Maryland Democrats nervous.

Their hangover from Gov. Larry Hogan’s surprise election has lasted two years longer than the Trump hangover. Hogan continues to confound them.

Trump’s unpopularity helps – it makes a bigger difference in a nominally blue state like Maryland than it does in a suburban Atlanta congressional district. But that’s hardly a guarantee that Democrats will be able to topple Hogan next year or make gains in the territory where they were wiped out in 2014.

This is Baker’s challenge – and the challenge for all the Democrats who dream of being governor. They need to make the case to the voters for firing Hogan and hiring them – and they need to recognize that there’s a big, broad electorate out there that isn’t cheering every anti-Trump diatribe. These voters will want to hear focused solutions to the state’s myriad problems.

In the wake of the Democrats’ agonizing 4-point loss in the Georgia special election – a closer result than they had any right to expect, before the hype machine cranked up unrealistic expectations – Democrats can’t agree on an approach and are looking for someone to blame for their defeat. The Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff, a nice-looking 30-year-old nobody, forged a pretty moderate course that seemed to fit the suburban district. Yet he still managed to be damaged by whatever association Republicans could draw between him and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Now it’s time to focus on putting real resources behind candidates who can inspire progressives and give folks a clear vision for the future,” one Democratic strategist, Rebecca Katz, told Politico this week. “Democrats have to stop focusing all our energy on winning over Romney voters and start figuring out how to bring more progressive independents into the fold.”

Most Democrats sense that 2018 ought to be a good year for them, especially if Trump’s poll numbers remain low. But Republicans generally turn out more than Democrats in mid-term elections. Democrats really need to figure out a way to turn on activists and simultaneously reach out to the voters who abandoned them – no easy task.

Politico this week also carried an astonishingly brutal blind quote from another Democratic operative, talking about how easy it was for the GOP to tar Ossoff with Pelosi, and how ossified Democratic leadership in the House has become (see what I just did there?).

“We no longer have a party caucus capable of riding this wave,” the consultant said. “We have 80-year-old leaders and 90-year-old ranking members. This isn’t a party. It’s a giant assisted living center. Complete with field trips, gym, dining room and attendants.”

Nancy Pelosi and Maryland’s own Steny Hoyer have been the top two Democrats in the House in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. And the Democrats have only been in the majority for four of those years. No wonder House Democrats are becoming restive.

Rushern Baker is only 58. He has not been the face of the Maryland Democratic Party, the way Pelosi has been on the national level. But he has been a part of the state’s political establishment since 1994 and wasn’t elected county executive until his third attempt in 2010. He is not universally known, of course, but he is a player, and is well-known to political insiders.

One thing that Baker does have in common with Pelosi is that he can be open to political attack – far more than he thinks. You can easily see Hogan, and maybe even his Democratic primary opponents, hitting him for attempting to pass a large property tax increase a couple of years ago. Or for the current fracas over whether Prince George’s school officials inflated test scores. Or for the political corruption that continues to plague the county (even though Baker isn’t personally involved).

None of this means that he can’t be a good candidate or a good governor. But, as with everything we’re seeing with the Democrats, at the state level and nationally, it’s complicated.

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