By Bruce DePuyt
Fifty-five weeks from now, Maryland Democrats will decide who should be their standard-bearer against Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Next week’s balloting in Virginia may offer a taste of what we can expect.
With former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie favored to take the GOP nomination, the drama has been on the surprisingly tight contest among Democrats. In that battle, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has seen his carefully laid groundwork of endorsements and organization fall victim to a relatively late challenge from former congressman Tom Perriello. The upstart’s younger followers and out-of-state endorsers from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ White House bid have, according to the latest polls, brought him within striking distance.
The debates have given the candidates the chance to talk about their resumes and positions on the issues, but that’s not what this race is about, says former Virginia congressman Jim Moran (D), who likes both candidates and has stayed neutral in the June 13 primary. “They’re pretty much in lockstep” on the big issues. [Instead,] it’s establishment versus upstart.”
And, who can do a better job of channeling the anti-Trump anger among Democrats in Virginia and beyond? “The key question that Virginia Democrats will answer is how anti-Trump they want the party to be,” University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth says.
The lieutenant governor seemed to telegraph that he understands he suffers from an enthusiasm gap last week, when he launched a controversial TV ad. In the spot, Northam, a medical doctor, calls President Trump “a narcissistic maniac.”
Moran sees a candidate outside his comfort zone. “It doesn’t strike me as genuine. I know Ralph. … He’s a very solid, thoughtful good person. I’d be shocked if he would refer to the president like that in normal conversation.”
While the strategy carries risks, it may be a necessity now that the front-runner’s lead has apparently slipped away.
“I think Northam, in response to Perriello’s rise in the polls, clearly realized he had to be more aggressive,” Farnsworth says. “Some Democratic voters are not in the mood for a traditional Democratic conversation. If they were, Perriello wouldn’t be close. Northam needed to ramp up his attacks to convince [voters] that they could get the same anti-Trump perspective from [him].”
Says Moran: “Ralph Northam represents the Democratic establishment, the folks who go to every Jefferson-Jackson dinner, who work the polls, who want a sense of continuity and confidence that the successes of [former governors Chuck] Robb, [Mark] Warner, [Tim] Kaine and [Terry] McAuliffe will be sustained. Tom Perriello is the outsider. He has been able to mobilize a group of voters who are not legacy voters of the Democratic Party. They’ll be younger, more activist. He’ll get more Bernie voters.”
Which is where the takeaway for 2018 candidates in Maryland comes in — potentially. The field of likely Democratic candidates for governor includes conventional politicians like Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and Congressman John Delaney along with several less traditional candidates and longshots.
Longtime pollster and strategist Keith Haller says a win by Perriello, the insurgent, offers a potential template to other candidates. “Ben Jealous could use that as a springboard to a Sanders-like candidacy in Maryland,” Haller says. “There is a huge despair among the Democratic rank and file [particularly over] how Democrats should fight Donald Trump.”
Moran says Perriello voters are “mobilized because of Trump. They blame Hillary [Clinton] for running a campaign that was too boring and predictable and did not excite the base. They’re looking for someone different.”
The political pros will be watching for the turnout percentages. “I will be looking for a turnout that exceeds 15 percent. I think if you get a 20 percent then it benefits Perriello, because that’s twice (the normal turnout),” Moran says.
“Turnout is going to be a crucial factor,” Haller agrees. “There’s going to be a lot of emotion with the Perriello crowd and that’s something [Northam] has to guard against.”
And of course, the requisite caveat applies. This is 2017. Maryland voters cast ballots nearly 400 days from now. And as Haller, the Potomac Inc. numbers-cruncher put it, “In today’s politics, one year is like a decade.”