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Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: Kittleman’s Comeback Attempt Says a Lot About the 2022 Political Environment

Main Street in Ellicott City immediately after a devastating flood in 2018. The recovery of Ellicott City is going to become an issue in the 2022 race for Howard County executive — and the flood may prove to be a metaphor for Democrats’ political fortunes. Photo by Howard County Government via Getty Images.

Former Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman’s announcement Sunday that he’ll try to win his old job back next year says everything you need to know about the 2022 political environment — in Maryland and beyond.

Howard County is becoming increasingly Democratic, and incumbent County Executive Calvin B. Ball III (D) was, until Kittleman’s announcement, seen as likely to win reelection. But the past few weeks, with the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, with COVID-19 cases spiking and with voter unease about the state of the economy and public safety, have been a disaster for Democrats, and President Biden’s approval ratings have tumbled dramatically.

Kittleman (R), of course, mentioned none of this in his five-minute announcement, made before a small crowd and released on YouTube.

“I’ve been your lifelong neighbor,” he said at the beginning of his speech, and then laid out his “disappointment and sadness” at Howard County’s direction since Ball defeated him in 2018.

“These past few years, we’ve seen our community go in the wrong direction,” Kittleman added. “We’re more divided, more taxed and more worried about our shared future.”

Howard County Executive Calvin B. Ball III (D), left, faces a likely rematch with his predecessor, Republican Allan H. Kittleman. File photos.

He was especially withering in his assessment of Ball’s management of Ellicott City following two epic and devastating floods that roared through the town’s business district in 2016 and 2018 — a topic that is surely on everyone’s minds after the deadly Hurricane Ida tore through the eastern third of the U.S., killing a 19-year-old man who drowned in a Rockville basement apartment, and dozens of others.

Ball will no doubt respond in kind, and Howard County voters can now look forward to an epic, 14-month rematch involving two political heavyweights — seasoned public servants and savvy tacticians who are both, broadly speaking, well-liked in the community.

But make no mistake: Kittleman would probably not be attempting this comeback if the 2022 political environment didn’t look so good all of a sudden for Republicans.

The first midterm election of a president’s first term is always dicey for the party that controls the White House. But the ingredients might be lining up for 2022 to be an especially good year for Republicans.

This has got to be an unwelcome surprise for Democrats, in Maryland and in the rest of the country. After four years of Trump crazy, they figured the return to “normal” under Biden might mitigate their midterm losses. Never mind that their microscopic margins in the U.S. House and Senate leave no margin for error — and if you’ve been paying attention to the national narrative of the past few months, it sure doesn’t seem as if Democrats are controlling the agenda in Washington, D.C.

National Republicans play under one brass-knuckle set of rules, while Democrats are still trying to figure out how to win a legislative argument. The bad news still spells electoral doom for the Democrats.

At the national level, Democrats are hoping that the new Texas law eviscerating abortion rights will motivate their voters and keep suburban women in their column next year. And it might. But it should also motivate conservative voters.

Anyway, abortion is considered settled law in Maryland, due to the 1992 ballot initiative codifying abortion rights into state law. And Democratic attempts to raise the specter of eroding abortion rights have rarely been very effective in the context of state and local elections. Just ask Gov. Anthony Brown.

Through July, Howard County had 120,458 registered Democrats compared to 50,681 enrolled Republicans. In fact, the second largest voting bloc in the county was unaffiliated voters — 54,509. Democrats hold a 4-1 edge on the county council, and they hold all but two seats in the county’s legislative delegation in Annapolis (the GOP seats are in a subdistrict that takes in pieces of Howard and conservative Carroll County).

Yet Howard has proven to be a remarkable bellwether in the last two state election cycles. In 2014, then County Councilmember Courtney Watson (D) was considered the favorite for the open county executive seat. But in what turned out to be a bad year for Democrats nationally and in Maryland, Kittleman, who was then a state senator, prevailed, taking 51.2% to Watson’s 48.7%.

Four years later, Kittleman seemed like a shoo-in for a second term, but the national political winds were blowing in Democrats’ favor, and Ball ousted him, 52.8% to 47.1%.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), as he did in 2014, won the county in 2018. Since that election, Howard County has added 10,098 Democrats to the voter rolls, while there are 5,372 fewer Republicans.

Very few people saw Kittleman’s demise coming, even as Howard has trended more liberal in recent years. Next door, in more conservative Anne Arundel County, the incumbent Republican County Executive, Steve Schuh, also entered the 2018 cycle as the strong favorite for reelection. But he could be arrogant and had angered broad swaths of the electorate; Kittleman, operating in more Democratic territory, was a moderate, politically and temperamentally. So his defeat that November seemed more surprising than Schuh’s.

Both Kittleman and Schuh have found refuge in the Hogan administration — Kittleman with an appointment to the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission, a full-time gig. He has also freelanced politically in recent weeks as co-chair, along with former Baltimore County state Sen. James Brochin (D), of a supposedly bipartisan group called Fair Maps Maryland, which was established by Hogan allies to support the governor’s redistricting agenda.

Support him or oppose him politically, Kittleman is considered to be a nice guy whose father, the late state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman (R), was one of the real gentlemen of Maryland politics, and a true compassionate conservative who was co-founder of Howard County’s NAACP chapter. Kittleman’s gesture of heading to Ball’s campaign headquarters on election night 2018, not just to concede but to hug the man who had vanquished him, was one of the most genuinely touching moments of recent Maryland political history.

Chances are, that level of fellowship won’t exist in 2022.

Ball and Kittleman will talk about their records in the months ahead, and their competing visions for Howard County. One of the things Kittleman will have to explain is why he’s entering the county’s new public financing program for candidates after vetoing the legislation to create the system as county executive.

“We will have the largest grass-roots campaign in Howard County history,” he said in his announcement speech Sunday.

The outcome of this race may be determined by local concerns and the candidates’ records and rhetoric. But national political trends will undoubtedly also be a factor.

This is a race Democrats did not expect and clearly do not want. And it makes you wonder what other perils await Maryland Democrats as the 2022 election cycle ramps up.

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Josh Kurtz: Kittleman’s Comeback Attempt Says a Lot About the 2022 Political Environment