The timing of the announcement was purely coincidental.
But Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball (D) officially kicked off his campaign for county executive Thursday night, just two days after Democrats made big gains in Virginia suburban counties that bear some demographic and economic resemblance to Howard.
Ball believes the Democratic sweep Tuesday in Virginia – and in Frederick and Annapolis – along with voter antipathy for President Trump bode well for his attempt to oust County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) next year. Voters, he said in an interview, will be looking for candidates who “stand up when we’re under attack from people who don’t share our priorities.”
Nobody – not even Ball – would suggest that Kittleman, a mild-mannered moderate whose father started Howard County’s NAACP chapter – is anything like Trump.
But just as the ground may have shifted after Tuesday night for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and his re-election bid, it may also have shifted for Kittleman. Howard County has generally trended Democratic over the past two decades; Kittleman and Hogan won it narrowly in 2014, a bad year nationally for Democrats and following 16 straight years of Democratic rule in Ellicott City. It’s easy to see a Democratic surge there in 2018, if the current national dynamic holds.
Surge enough to take down Kittleman? He’s a fairly non-controversial figure who is almost certain to have a huge financial advantage over Ball. As of mid-January, Kittleman had $725,000 in his campaign account, compared to $89,000 for Ball.
Ball concedes that he’ll have to build a case against Kittleman – that he can’t just rely on angry Democratic voters to put him over the top.
“I know it’s going to be attractive to frame this as ‘me vs. him’ and ‘Trump is a horrible person,’” he said. “But I really think this is about which candidate has a more compelling vision for Howard County. This hopefully will be about ideas and vision and less about personality and attacks.”
But Ball also suggests that there will be plenty of energy on the Democratic side next year. “I think people are starting to wake up,” he said.
Kittleman tried to preempt Ball’s announcement with an announcement of his own – the timing of which may or may not have been coincidental. On Wednesday, the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association endorsed Kittleman for re-election – the first time the union has backed a Republican for county executive in Howard County.
“I can personally attest that with Allan, there is no politics,” said International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2000 President Richard Ruehl. “He’s a trustworthy guy who clearly has Howard County’s best interests at heart.”
Kittleman said “this endorsement means a great deal.”
Meanwhile, asked during a State House news conference Thursday to survey the new political landscape, Hogan demurred.
“I’m not going to play political pundit,” he said.
The governor noted, though, that voter turnout in Virginia was up significantly from the gubernatorial election four years ago on the Republican side and not just among Democrats, though he conceded that the Democratic increase was greater.
“It shows that the electorate is engaged and energized and coming out to the polls,” he said.
Maryland Democrats have been crowing about how much more vulnerable Hogan is following Tuesday’s results and many have signaled that they will continue to try to equate Hogan with Trump (and with losing Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie) as often as they can.
But they will still have to make the case for why voters should fire the incumbent and hire their eventual nominee for governor. Suddenly, the stakes for the upcoming General Assembly session are even higher, and Democrats will have to figure out ways to score meaningful political points – without just reflexively resorting to easy political rhetoric.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidates themselves may be getting the message. One of them, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, struck a note of caution on Facebook this week, reminding fellow Democrats that they need to unify and offer bold policy prescriptions.
“We win when we campaign on the issues that matter to the voters,” he wrote.
In the past couple of days, some of Ross’ Democratic primary opponents have made a range of policy announcements. Former Obama administration official Krish Vignarajah unveiled a comprehensive education plan. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker called for a nationwide ban on assault weapons, and asked all Maryland elected officials – especially Hogan – to join him on the crusade. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz published a piece on the Daily Kos website, touting his penchant for rolling up his sleeves and confronting problems.
“In the age of Trump, people are looking for qualified, experienced leaders who know how to get things done, and who will stand up to what’s happening in Washington when it threatens our communities,” he wrote.
Hogan seemed eager to change the conversation in the aftermath of the election. He picked a fight with state Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) – who he is clearly coming to dislike – over Frosh’s unwillingness to intervene in a federal case over the future of the Peace Cross in Bladensburg. He unveiled a proposal Thursday to eliminate state taxes on military pensions. His decision to send Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles to the annual U.N. climate conference this week also carries political implications, helping to burnish his environmental credentials.
Mileah K. Kromer, a Goucher College political scientist and pollster, called the current political environment “a precarious situation” for Hogan. But she said the governor may be able to survive 2018, even if it is a Democratic wave year.
“No one’s going to be surprised if the Democrats pick up a lot of seats in the House next year,” she said. “But for the governors, one of the primary things that impacts their political fortunes is the health of the economy. It doesn’t make you bulletproof, but it sure helps. Every time the economy does something good in Maryland, he gets to take credit for it.”
In the age of Trump, social media and an ever-more mercurial electorate, the political narrative isn’t nearly as linear or predictable as it once was. Democrats may stay as angry and engaged a year from now as they appeared to be in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and in Annapolis and Frederick. But candidates and party leaders in Maryland will still have to work to earn their enthusiasm.
The 2018 election, Kromer said, “is both right around the corner and so long from now.”