Josh Kurtz: Virus Disrupts Two Political Cycles in Md.

Tawes crab feast in 2020? What are the odds? File photo

It’s already well-established that the 2020 election has been disrupted, in multiple ways, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But here’s an eerie thought that may not have occurred to too many people: The 2022 elections in Maryland are on the verge of being disrupted as well.

Not in the literal or technological sense: No one is suggesting the primaries scheduled for June of 2022 or the general election will have to be delayed or modified. God help us all if we’re still living with a public health crisis of this magnitude two years on.

But with cherished summer events and traditional Maryland political rituals on the verge of being canceled or drastically scaled back this year, it becomes inevitable that the run-up to 2022 will be impacted in perceptible ways.

Presidential election years in Maryland are traditionally the time when politicians who are interested in running for statewide office two years later start to reveal themselves. They make the interminable trek to Crisfield for the Tawes crab feast. They sponsor delegation breakfasts or receptions at the national political conventions. They’re more ubiquitous than they might otherwise be at the Ocean City conventions of the Maryland Municipal League, in late June, and the Maryland Association of Counties, in mid-August.

Right now, MML and MACo are still on the docket, though both organizations say they are monitoring the situation closely, considering their options, and will make a final call as the events get closer. The Crisfield Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the Tawes crab feast, did not respond to phone or email messages, but Tawes is still prominent on the website.

Yet what are the chances of these three events taking place at all, let alone in their traditional format?

Crab feast fans — and their elected leaders — may be dying for a party like Tawes by the time mid-July rolls around. But all that heat, humidity, sweating, beer, fried food and lack of social distancing? Uh, maybe not.

There’s plenty of of heat, humidity, sweating, drinking and lack of social distancing during the MML and MACo conventions as well — even though the official portion of those confabs takes place during the day in the massive, bone-chilling Roland E. Powell Convention Center. And let us stipulate that plenty of important and interesting information is imparted and exchanged during the official convention sessions, even as the fundraising and reception circuit grows bigger every year.

But despite the undeniable and legitimate value of the conventions for those who attend, the optics this year will look especially bad: Thousands of politicians and other officials down at the beach, at the government’s expense, when many of their constituents have lost their lives and livelihoods? Seems improbable. MML and MACo convention-goers often come in for criticism, despite the value of these events. This year, it would be far worse.

President Trump and national GOP leaders are insisting that the Republican National Convention will go on as planned in Charlotte, N.C., in late August. The Democratic National Convention, in Milwaukee, has already been delayed a month, and is now set to take place a week before the GOP confab. But former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential nominee, has suggested that the scale of the convention, and the timeline, might have to be reduced drastically.

(For those keeping a calendar, the Democratic convention was originally going to conflict with Tawes; now it overlaps with MACo.)

Does anyone really think the conventions, which traditionally draw some 40,000 people to the host city — politicians, media, hangers-on, protesters and hucksters — are going to go on as planned?

The parties, the receptions, the schmoozing, the bacchanal, are usually irresistible. Just not this year. Too many germs from too many parts of the world in one big mosh pit in one cramped arena. No, thanks.

And anyway, the conventions themselves are just made-for-TV events nowadays. Nothing of consequence happens in the convention hall, besides a few speeches.

But that doesn’t mean things of consequence don’t happen during a national convention — the good stuff just tends to take place behind the scenes. If you’re keeping tabs on a single delegation like Maryland’s, every delegation breakfast, every reception, every observed one-on-one conversation among state pols and political activists, is fodder for gossip and a form of intel.

But chances are, we won’t have that opportunity this year. Ditto for the ritualistic political jockeying and information gathering that Tawes, MML and MACo provide.

This isn’t just a political junkie’s lament. The dismantling of 2020’s political rituals in Maryland is going to impact the way 2022 campaigns unfold and are carried out.

If you’re thinking about running for statewide office in 2022, in either party, the missed opportunity to mix and mingle and signal your intentions is meaningful. Of course, there will be other ways to get the word out, over time. Wannabe candidates are just going to have to work harder and be creative.

Already the 2020 presidential election is frozen for the foreseeable future. Trump is on TV every night, riffing, preening, prevaricating, insulting, pretending he has a clue how to deal with the double whammy of public health disaster and economic devastation.

Biden has essentially been rendered irrelevant, confined to his basement, ready for interviews when friendly broadcast outlets ask for them. But for the former VP, who seems older and is as gaffe-prone as ever, maybe less exposure is better for now.

In a similar way, the 2022 elections in Maryland are also frozen. No one wants to be overtly political at the moment.

If you are, say, a county executive or other local official thinking about running for statewide office, that becomes more challenging. How and when do you start to move around the state when you need to be spending the next several months dealing with the economic wreckage of your local jurisdiction?

If you are a political newcomer thinking about running for high office, the opportunity to become known also becomes more difficult. How and when do you introduce yourself to voters and powerbrokers who are otherwise occupied with life and death matters?

The current circumstances appear to benefit the well known and the well funded.

If you’re the incumbent, it’s harder for potential challengers to gain footing. If you’re a long-time officeholder who may be looking to move up the political ladder, like Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), the field is frozen. Your potential opponents don’t have the perch you do and you already have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to the contacts you’ve made and the chits you’ve collected while traveling around the state on the taxpayer dime; it will take less well-known politicians longer to make up the gap.

This doesn’t mean that Franchot and Rutherford are shoo-ins for their parties’ respective gubernatorial nominations. 2022 is still several eras away — all the more so because of the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 and the lightning-fast changes that are taking place in a badly shaken society. It just means that whatever early advantages they bring to their respective nominating contests — and we don’t know for sure that either is running — will last a little longer than they might in an ordinary political cycle.

It’s hard to conceive of a summer in Maryland without MML, MACo and the Tawes crab feast. But we’d better come to grips with the possibility. And there will be real-world and real-time political implications.

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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.