Josh Kurtz: Lessons from Across the Potomac

Former Virginia legislator Joe Morrissey won a state Senate primary this week despite serving a jail sentence for corrupting a minor (a woman who is now his wife). Photo via WTOP

“One of the great things about Virginia,” a political operative from there once told me, “is that every year is an election year.”

He’s right. Virginia is one of the few places in the U.S. where critical state elections take place in odd-numbered years. Congressional races take place, as usual, in even-numbered years. Every year, there’s something interesting and important going on.

Sure, we have some staggered elections in Maryland: congressional races every two years, Baltimore City elections in the presidential years, and some municipal elections in odd-numbered years. But most of the action takes place once every four years, during gubernatorial election cycles.

Of course, if Virginia elections seem more exciting than Maryland’s, it’s only because, most of the time, they are. That has something to do with the politically competitive nature of the Old Dominion.

Right now, for example, Republicans control both houses of the state legislature by only one seat – meaning we can expect knock-down, drag-out wars in dozens of legislative districts this general election, with control of both chambers hanging in the balance. Already, serious national money is pouring into key legislative races, and outside groups are already playing. Imagine such a scenario in Maryland legislative general elections.

Maryland is still reliably blue: Democrats have super majorities in both houses of the legislature and the state delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives is 7-1 Democratic, whereas it’s 7-4 Democratic in Virginia — and that’s only after the Democrats flipped three seats last year.

The one exception when it comes to Democratic dominance is in recent gubernatorial contests, where Democrats have lost three out of the last five in Maryland; in Virginia, Democrats have won four out of the last five elections for governor.

All this is a long-winded intro to our question du jour: Heading into the 2020 election cycle in Maryland, are there lessons to be learned from this week’s legislative and local primaries in the Old Dominion? Happily, the answer is – yes!

The electorate is still really energized – in both parties for sure, but probably most of all on the Democratic left.

That could portend a higher turnout than usual in Baltimore City, where turnout is usually pretty low. Of course, turnout in next April’s primaries in Maryland could also be determined by whether the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination has been settled and whether there are any competitive congressional primaries. A Supreme Court ruling ordering a new congressional map for Maryland would likely also boost turnout.

Insurgents are still doing pretty well in Democratic primaries.

This has got to hearten progressives who are thinking of challenging incumbents in Baltimore City or in congressional races. But there’s a cautionary tale, too.

In one suburban district, state Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, who has been in the legislature for 40 years, barely held off a more progressive challenger in the Democratic primary. But another progressive candidate finished a distant third in the primary, with 5 percent of the vote. Without that third candidate, it’s very likely that Saslaw’s principal challenger, Yasmine Taeb, would have prevailed.

Now consider what’s taking place in Maryland’s 5th congressional district, where not one but two young women of color, Briana Urbina and Mckayla Wilkes, with visions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez no doubt dancing in their heads, are hoping to challenge House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D), who’s now in his 38th year in Congress. Could they wind up splitting the anti-Hoyer vote? Very possibly.

When AOC ousted then-New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democratic, in the primary last year, she had the element of surprise on her side, and Crowley wasn’t working very hard for his reelection. That won’t be the case with Hoyer, who continues to hustle around his sprawling and diverse district even with his growing national party duties. This isn’t to say that Hoyer can’t lose, because, as he knows so well, anyone can lose in any given cycle; even icons can fall out of favor. But he won’t be outworked.

One more related question: Does Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger face any kind of peril in the Democratic primary?

Voters – especially African-American voters – like redemption stories.

Joe Morrissey was a former state legislator and prosecutor in Virginia who served jail time for corrupting a minor – his former receptionist, who was 17 years old (he was in his early 50’s) when they began a sexual relationship. Now they are married with children, and Morrissey stunned a Democratic incumbent in a state Senate primary this week, featuring his young family prominently in campaign literature. He’s unopposed in the general election, so it should be smooth sailing.

This surely must be making supporters of former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon (D) smile as she contemplates another political comeback.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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