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Commentary Election 2022

Josh Kurtz: Has Maryland Become Fritters, Alabama?

President Joe Biden speaks at a Democratic rally in Rockville in late August. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Last week’s Democratic rally in Rockville, headlined by President Biden and featuring an all-star cast of party luminaries, was a big hit, a rollicking show. It gave the party faithful the red-meat rhetoric they were looking for, and just as important, it gave them hope. Maybe the midterms won’t be as disastrous as the Democrats once feared.

As I sat in the press section of the raucous gym at Richard Montgomery High School, penned in by the camera riser and some temporary fencing, I found myself wondering, why Maryland and why now? And my mind flashed to a storyline from the Doonesbury comic strip in 1974, when President Nixon, damaged by the growing Watergate scandal, traveled to the fictional town of Fritters, Alabama. That was the only place supportive enough in the U.S. to hear a Nixon speech, the story went.

So has Maryland, a Democratic state most days, and where Democrats are feeling particularly bullish given the Republican nominees for governor, attorney general, and U.S. Senate, effectively become Fritters, Alabama? Was this the only place where Biden could be guaranteed a hospitable welcome? Or was he road-testing some campaign themes for the fall in front of a friendly audience before hitting the campaign trail in earnest in the weeks ahead?

Biden is visiting Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Tuesday, for an official appearance on gun violence (it was originally scheduled for July but had to be postponed after he contracted COVID-19). And he’s scheduled to take part in the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade next week. But that’s about all we know about his fall travel schedule. Biden seemed to recognize his middling political standing in Rockville when he jokingly told U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), who wasn’t present because he was celebrating his 35th wedding anniversary, that he’d campaign for or against him, whichever would be more helpful.

Biden’s remarks in Rockville got national attention, particularly his assertion that MAGA Republicans are practicing “semi-fascism” — providing an opening for Gov. Larry Hogan and other so-called GOP moderates like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to blast him for being divisive. You combine that combative language with vows to protect and strengthen abortion rights, a promise to pass an assault weapons band, and action, at long last, to combat climate change, and Democrats think they have a pretty salable message — or enough of a message and record to at least motivate their voters in the midterms.

Polls are now showing that Democratic enthusiasm for the midterm turnout is just a tick below Republican enthusiasm, and the congressional generic ballot is about even between the parties. How the Democrats wish the midterms were tomorrow instead of two-plus months away.

Historic models, law of averages, and just common sense tell us that the Republicans are likely to have a better election night than the Democrats — even with the unwanted specter of Donald Trump looming over it all.

How Trump is both the dominant figure in Republican politics and one of the few things that keeps Democrats in the game is one of the enduring mysteries of modern American politics, and it’s fascinating to speculate how historians will explain this era a century or more from now.

Even as I pondered these questions while sweating and pining for water at the Rockville rally, I also came away with these stray observations:

The logistics behind presidential rallies are always amazing. And Biden was at his best. Biden is gonna Biden, and his schtick isn’t for everybody, but you forget that he’s pretty good at firing up a crowd. Wes Moore had a pretty good vantage point and enviable exposure as he sat on the stage a few feet away from Biden during the president’s remarks.

The only person who came close to generating as much enthusiasm with the crowd as Biden — and maybe even surpassed it — was U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), who seems to provoke a reception worthy of The Beatles wherever he goes these days, at least in the 8th congressional district. I have never in all my years of covering politics seen an elected official prompt such an outpouring of affection and gratitude as I’ve seen with District 8 Democrats and Raskin.

It’s the modern-day equivalent of the constituent gratitude you used to see when political bosses handed out holiday turkeys. Those acts of charity engendered political loyalty, which the bosses took advantage of at election time. It’s not too early — or too inappropriate — to wonder whether Raskin will be able to harness this rockstar mania into some kind of a political force for good (or for himself). Raskin is a rare talent at a rare moment and it will be interesting to see where this all goes.

His congressional colleagues certainly seem to recognize the Raskin phenomenon for what it is. U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D), who has been delivering full-throated political stemwinders at Maryland political events for five and a half decades, lamented his misfortune, having to follow Raskin on the program Thursday evening.

Hoyer can still give a podium-pounding speech at the top of his voice, but at least one thing seemed off. Noting the young people in the audience, he recalled the time as a student when he heard President Kennedy speaking at the University of Maryland, and all the inspiration he took from that moment. But it may be time to retire that part of the speech. Talking about JFK now is the equivalent of a politician in that era enthusing to a young audience that he had witnessed the “Cross of Gold” speech.

Speaking of bearing witness, while he did not have a speaking gig or a prominent role at the Biden rally, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) was on the minds of many of the Democrats who attended, especially his constituents. Elrich on Thursday was fresh off a just-settled 32-vote victory in the Democratic primary recount, which was particularly mind-blowing when you consider he won a 77-vote Democratic primary victory, against the same opponent, four years earlier.

In an extraordinary recent interview with The Lobby, a podcast run by the folks at Center Maryland, Elrich accused The Washington Post of nothing less than being in collusion with his challenger, businessman David Blair, and with all the moneyed forces backing Blair’s campaign. He’s not that far off the mark.

The Post’s criticism of Elrich in recent months has certainly been way beyond a typical editorial board’s endorsement for an opponent. There’s been a sky-is-falling element to the narrative, that a second Elrich term would be an unmitigated disaster.

So how did the Post editorial writers treat the county executive’s razor-thin win? With a scolding headline that he “must do better in his second term.”

There are two ways of looking at Elrich’s tiny Democratic primary victories. One is that these near-death experiences, in multi-candidate fields, show that he and his message are really not that popular, and that he must view them as a wake-up call to change his style and priorities. The other is that he prevailed despite his opponent spending at least $10 million of his own money over a four-year period, despite the opposition of a powerful array of forces that worked hard to ensure his defeat, and despite the hysterical opposition of one of the most consequential newspapers in American history.

Given all those forces lined up against him, why isn’t Elrich viewed as a giant-slayer? And maybe it’s time for the hand-wringers who hang on the fringes of Montgomery County politics opining like a Greek chorus to just get over it.

I asked Elrich recently whether he sees this as his last term. He was noncommittal.

(Disclosure: The Blair Family Foundation was a financial supporter of Maryland Matters in 2017 and 2020.)