In one of Maryland’s true swing districts, the race to represent District 30 in the state Senate could be decided by predicted trends in 2018, but which?
Will Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s popularity translate into victory for businessman and former Del. Ronald A. George (R)? Or will a promised surge of new voters and women propel 30-year-old progressive activist Sarah Elfreth (D) into her first elected position?
The seat is up for grabs in the Annapolis-based district following the retirement of Sen. John C. Astle (D), who is leaving after six terms and has endorsed Elfreth. A horde of other Democratic officials have lined up to support Elfreth and help keep the critical district in the party’s hands.
Voters in the district have elected both Democrats and Republicans in the last several years, including a split delegation to the House of Delegates that includes House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D).
Hogan won the district by 28.7 points in 2014, but President Trump only edged out Hillary Clinton by 0.6 points two years ago. In the 2017 elections in the city of Annapolis, Democrats won the mayoralty and maintained a majority on the city council.
But the Senate district, which includes more conservative portions of South County, could prove to be tight. Astle won by a narrow margin, 1,177 votes, four years ago. And party registration in the district is largely unchanged since 2014. As of the close of registration, about 42.4 percent of eligible active voters in the county are Democrats, compared to 35.4 percent who are Republicans.
Despite an impressive fundraising haul for a first-time candidate, Elfreth is still trailing George’s fundraising totals by six figures.
Elfreth has raised $155,370, compared to $264,086.78 raised by George.
At the end of August, George retained more than $216,000 in his bank account, compared to more than $92,000 remaining in Elfreth’s coffers.
Elfreth has received support and contributions from influential State House Democrats: Busch, with whom she and other candidates split a campaign office; Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard); Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) and Astle.
George has received contributions from Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh, who is up for reelection, and U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R), among others.
George has been fundraising since 2015 and was uncontested in the Republican primary, while Elfreth spent a significant portion of her war chest on a hotly contested Democratic primary.
A new voice
Elfreth ― whose 30th birthday celebration balloons double as a District 30 prop at campaign events ― came to politics from community activism. During her senior year at Towson University, she was student member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, and later worked as government affairs director for the National Aquarium in Baltimore. She is also a former president of the District 30 Democratic Club, and has been active in her neighborhood association in downtown Annapolis.
Elfreth is also courting the youth vote and women.
Her robust social media presence includes a campaign video about waking up the morning after Election Day 2016 to realize that she was represented at the city, state and federal levels entirely by male lawmakers.
“I woke up not being represented by a single woman. And I was resolved to never wake up the morning after an Election Day wishing I had done more,” she says in the ad. “…If you’re capable and you’re passionate, it’s your obligation as a woman to run for office. I think the perspective that women bring, particularly as a younger woman of my generation, those are all issues that we really care passionately about.”
She touts endorsements from environmental groups, the Maryland State Education Association and from the Maryland Farm Bureau.
“The Farm Bureau was a surprise, frankly, because it’s traditionally a more conservative group,” Elfreth said. “But when we sat down together we ultimately came to the same conclusion that we’re all invested in the same thing, which is a clean, healthy Chesapeake Bay, not just for us but for the generations to come.”
George says that farmers in South County are very upset about that endorsement as well as the bureau’s endorsement of Busch, given legislation in Annapolis to put restrictions on certain pesticides used in the industry, among other issues. George and South County farmers think Steuart Pittman, the Democratic nominee for Anne Arundel County executive and a horse farmer who is on the county farm bureau board, had something to do with it.
“That whole thing, it’s a wash,” George said at a League of Women Voters candidate forum this month. “…When you go to the farmers, they all can’t believe it. They’re all very upset about it.”
Elfreth said the district is changing. While Hogan remains popular, the district is now home to new, young Democratic and independent-minded families whose goals of affordable housing and child care and the health of the bay align with her platform.
Polling that she’s seen makes her feel comfortable, but “I need to knock doors every single day.”
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” Elfreth said. “…I feel like we have the energy and momentum on our side.”
Just this month, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), Reps. John P. Sarbanes and Anthony G. Brown, and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) have come out to knock doors with the campaign.
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) recorded a 15-second video endorsing Elfreth.
“I’m asking you to vote for a new, up-and-coming, dynamic woman in politics, Sarah Elfreth,” Mikulski says in the ad. Though she’s new, she’s gonna be mighty.”
Elfreth estimates that she alone has knocked on about 10,000 doors this election cycle, going out every day to meet voters. Her campaign team has hit many more houses.
Elfreth said the chief issues that voters bring up with her are the need to address the sense of chaos coming out of Washington, D.C., through state policies; state solutions to development problems in rapidly growing areas of the district; inequity in schools and teacher pay; and the cost of health care. Many voters also talk to her about her support for a $15 minimum wage in the state, which George opposes.
Her campaign has co-hosted canvassing events with groups involved in the issues she cares about and has received endorsements for: her green policies, support for abortion rights, education.
An ally for Hogan
George, a father to six and grandfather to seven who recently turned 65, said he’s been knocking on doors for three years now. He said he’s a “straight shooter” and doesn’t fall back on political tricks like reflecting back what voters have just told a candidate just to get their vote.
George, who once served as chairman of the Anne Arundel County delegation to Annapolis, said he brings a pragmatic, business-like approach to politics.
While touting his bipartisan efforts when he was last in the State House, George also says he would be an ally for Hogan.
“If a more anti-Hogan group comes in, he won’t get anything done. He’ll be like a lame duck,” George said. “And I just thought he needs to get through that veto-proof majority to get fair redistricting.”
George notes that he received more votes than Busch in 2010, before the District 30 lines were redrawn and he was no longer included in that district. He opted to run for governor in 2014, a bid that he now describes as necessary to help propel the Hogan campaign by creating space for debate before the Republican primary.
George regularly tries to connect Elfreth to Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former president of the NAACP Benjamin T. Jealous, who is trailing Hogan by double digits in all major public polls.
George’s campaign is also intensely focused on the role that the next governor and General Assembly will play in legislative and congressional redistricting.
In sharing a story about a Jealous comment – since walked back – that he would attempt to create an all-Democratic congressional delegation, George alleged that Elfreth would support Jealous’ efforts.
“As your next state senator I will work with Larry Hogan in making redistricting fair and transparent,” George wrote. “Ben Jealous and Sarah Elfreth would continue to gerrymander Maryland at an even more corrupt pace than has been done before. Voters in Maryland deserve to pick their politicians not to have their politicians pick the voters!”
At a forum earlier this month, Elfreth said she supports a bipartisan commission and would urge other states to move forward with such an effort in conjunction with Maryland. She also responded on Facebook.
Hogan has endorsed George and George has made periodic appearances at hearings throughout Hogan’s tenure to support the governor’s bills.
George is also endorsed by the National Rifle Association and Maryland Business for Responsive Government.
The endorsement he says he is most proud of comes from former Democratic Speaker of the House R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., who said in his endorsement: “As a Democrat and former Speaker of the House, I am endorsing Ron George for State Senate. As a State Delegate, Ron George demonstrated leadership by successfully breaking through the partisan divide and building coalitions to pass legislation on important issues. This effective type of leadership has not been seen since the days when the Legislature actually functioned to serve the People of Maryland and not special interest groups.”
The endorsement went on to laud George’s involvement in the local business scene and community groups.
Other top issues in George’s campaign platform are fiscal conservatism, policies to benefit small businesses and military veterans and opposition to programs that would create “sanctuary cities” in the state.