Strategists Launch PAC to Boost Democrats on Both Sides of the Potomac

An 1802 aquatint by George Jacob Beck shows the Great Falls of the Potomac River as viewed from the Virginia side. National Park Service

Democratic and union operatives in Maryland and Virginia have teamed up to create a political action committee to help political candidates on both sides of the Potomac River.

The PAC, known as Potomac Rising, held its first fundraiser last week in Gaithersburg.

The event was billed as an ERA house party, pegged to the push to get the now-dormant Equal Rights Amendment ratified in Virginia. Eileen Davis, a longtime ERA advocate who is the mother of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), and Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell (D) were the featured speakers.

While liberal activists from Maryland sporadically travel to Virginia to door-knock for Democratic candidates in tight congressional races or in state elections there, which take place in odd-numbered years, the organizers of the PAC are aiming to make the relationship more durable and more reciprocal. Maryland Democrats usually don’t get out of state help – even when they need it – because the state is considered so blue.

“What we thought was, if we created a permanent structure with a long-term vision, we could start building coalitions to help each other on campaigns and in policy battles,” said Brian Kildee, one of the two co-founders of Potomac Rising, who serves as the PAC’s treasurer. “A lot of the efforts you see are one-offs, and they drop off after the election.”

Kildee, a former official with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, is a Silver Spring resident who has been active in Montgomery County politics for a quarter century. He currently runs a consulting business that mostly works with labor unions.

The PAC’s other co-founder and chairwoman is Laura McClintock, a Richmond-based political consultant who held high-ranking posts at the U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama administration and has run several campaigns and ballot initiatives on the West Coast.

Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell (D) speaks at the inaugural fundraiser for the Potomac Rising PAC. Photo courtesy of Brian Kildee.

McClintock and Kildee have been meeting with politicians, staffers, operatives and activists on both sides of the Potomac.

“I’m really excited about the potential,” Surovell, who represents parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties, said in an interview. “Our states are tied together in a lot of ways that I don’t think people realize. Our states should be working a lot more closely together on policy and politics. We share a lot of the same quality-of-life issues.”

Given the realities of the political calendar, Virginia will be the focus of the PAC’s activities for the foreseeable future – though two more fundraisers are planned for this fall in Maryland.

Control of the Virginia General Assembly is up for grabs this November. If Democrats pick up just one seat in the state Senate, they’ll effectively have control, because Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) presides over the chamber and breaks tie votes. If Democrats pick up one seat in the House, control of the chamber will be tied, forcing a power-sharing agreement. Additional Democratic gains in either chamber will lead to more robust power.

House seats are up every two years in Virginia, while Senate seats are decided every four years. Democrats picked up 15 House seats in 2017, and this is the first round of state Senate elections since President Trump was elected.

Surovell said he detects a lot of Democratic energy in Virginia this election cycle and sees plenty of out-of-state activists and volunteers coming into the state to help the cause.

“When people are feeling particularly urgent about what’s happening at the national level, they can relieve their blue stress in Virginia,” he said.

The renewed fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which stalled in 1982, served as the hook for Potomac Rising’s first fundraiser last week. When the clock ran out 37 years ago, 35 states had ratified the ERA, three short of the 38 required.

In 2017, the Nevada legislature ratified the ERA, and a year later, the Illinois legislature followed suit. If one more state ratifies the measure, advocates believe they can persuade Congress or the courts to restart the clock or declare the amendment fully ratified. An attempt to do so in Virginia, where Republicans control both legislative chambers, fell short this year.

“The ERA issue is what we used to fill the first event, which was mostly all women,” Kildee said. “It was an interesting fundraiser because it turned into, ‘what more can I do?’ It almost became like a teach-in. It was very motivating and very energizing.”

Looking ahead

Within a few weeks, Potomac Rising’s organizers plan to send at least a few busloads of volunteers into Virginia – likely in low voter-turnout districts in the Richmond area – to help Democratic legislative candidates. Other volunteers will be tasked with phone-banking and postcard-writing, to aid voter turnout efforts.

Even after November, Virginia will likely continue to receive most of the PAC’s attention for the next couple of years. There don’t appear to be any competitive congressional races in Maryland in 2020, while the nonpartisan Cook Political Report places four Virginia House districts in the competitive category. Cook rates two of those races – including Spanberger’s bid for a second term – as tossups.

In 2021, Virginia will have elections for its three statewide offices – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general – as well as races for all the House of Delegates seats.

The Maryland political season cranks up in 2022, and PAC leaders hope to send the message that Democrats can’t take anything for granted, despite the Free State’s reputation. Even though Democrats hold a 7-1 edge in the congressional delegation and supermajorities in the Maryland General Assembly, Republicans have won three of the last five gubernatorial elections, and the race to replace retiring Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) could be highly competitive in 2022, depending on the political climate. Congressional boundaries in Maryland could also be significantly different.

“Historically, I don’t think [Virginia] Democrats think about Maryland because we have our own problems,” Surovell conceded.

Potomac Rising has been established as a federal PAC and is considered a hybrid account – one of the accounts can accept unlimited contributions.

“That’s what gave us the flexibility to work between both jurisdictions,” McClintock said – noting that Virginia and Maryland have significantly different campaign finance rules.

Potomac Rising isn’t the only joint political effort between Democrats in the two states this fall. Last week, Jeffrey Z. Slavin, a vice chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and mayor of Somerset, hosted a fundraiser for Virginia legislative candidates focusing on LGBTQ issues. Virginia Del. Danica Roem (D), the first transgendered person to serve in a state legislature, was a featured speaker.

In mid-October, the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Cornerstone Government Affairs, which has outposts in seven state capitals, including Annapolis, is hosting a fundraiser at its D.C. office for Virginia State Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D). Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) are scheduled to speak. Ticket prices start at $1,000.

Potomac Rising PAC doesn’t have that kind of financial firepower yet, but organizers are undaunted.

“Our fundraising focus is to do as much as we can between now and the election and to never stop,” Kildee said.

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