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Commentary Election 2022

Josh Kurtz: Two general elections that will tell us a lot about the state of Md. politics

Anne Arundel County Councilmember Jessica Haire, right, chats with congressional contender Yuripzy Morgan at a fundraiser in Annapolis recently. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Go ahead, pay close attention to the three general elections for statewide office. A recent poll suggests that Democrats are in pretty good shape in the races for governor, attorney general and comptroller, so we can begin to imagine what public policy is going to look like with Wes Moore as governor, Brooke Lierman as comptroller and Anthony Brown as attorney general.

But if you want to know what the political future is going to look like in Maryland over the next several years, you might want to pay equally close attention this fall to the races for county executive in Frederick and Anne Arundel.

Plain and simple: if Republicans Michael Hough and Jessica Haire win their respective elections in those counties, the GOP will have a plausible, even formidable bench for possible statewide or congressional races in the future; if they lose, the Maryland Republican Party will likely be down in the dumps for a while.

The next four years are going to be dramatically different for Maryland Democrats and Republicans than the previous eight have been. Democrats are still the dominant party, of course, but their growth and ability to truly shape the state policy agenda have been stymied by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s popularity. Republicans gained strength on the margins during the Hogan era (and in the 2010 election cycle), but as we are reminded this year, it’s not always easy for them to be competitive at the statewide level.

If the Republicans for statewide office and U.S. Senate lose as badly as last week’s Goucher poll suggests, there will be — or ought to be — a lot of soul-searching among GOP leaders and party activists about the kind of candidates and messages the party needs to be advancing in this blue state. And they’ll look ahead to see who might be able to lead them to statewide victory.

If Hough and Haire lose this November, it’s hard to imagine who those leaders to get them out of the political wilderness would be. But if one or both win, you at least have the beginning of a GOP renewal.

Haire, 39, is a lawyer who is completing her first term on the Anne Arundel County Council. Hough, a 42-year-old Air Force veteran, is completing his second term in the state Senate and previously served one term in the House of Delegates. In his day job, he is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), who broke into politics in Maryland before scooting across the state line to friendlier territory.

In a way, the Anne Arundel County executive election seems more clear-cut, while in Frederick more hard-to-assess political crosscurrents are at play — though both races are tough to handicap at this stage for a variety of reasons.

In Frederick, Hough is trying to put the very form of government up for scrutiny. Frederick is a relative newbie as a “charter county” — it’s just eight years into its experiment being governed by a county executive and county council. Hough argues that under term-limited Executive Jan Gardner (D) the county is floundering and is likely to become worse under his Democratic opponent and Gardner ally, County Councilmember Jessica Fitzwater. He says it is overtaxed, burdened by crime, and in danger of morphing into a northern version of Montgomery County.

Hough is trying to cast himself as a moderate suburban dad; he has a fairly conservative record in Annapolis despite some strategic votes like supporting the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future school reform plan. He also works for one of the most conservative members of Congress.

Fitzwater is a mainstream center-left Democrat with the support of the party establishment and the unions (she’s a teacher and a former teachers’ union leader). Frederick is trending Democratic, but not enough to guarantee Fitzwater victory.

At least two unions are running an independent expenditure campaign on her behalf, possibly helping to compensate for her fundraising shortfall. That campaign is currently and wisely focusing on abortion rights, a motivating factor for many moderate suburban women this election cycle.

Meanwhile, there are other political phenomena at play that could impact the outcome of the race.

Benefiting Hough’s candidacy is the presence of Frederick County Del. Dan Cox at the top of the Republican ticket. Cox may be trailing Democrat Wes Moore by 22 points in the statewide gubernatorial survey, but he has a loyal following among conservatives in rural Frederick County, and their enthusiasm should accrue to Hough in the county executive election.

And Fitzwater will likely profit from all of Democratic Congressman David Trone’s spending on his reelection. A solid chunk of that money is focused on bringing out Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters in Frederick County.

In Anne Arundel, Haire is trying to oust County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), who won an upset victory four years ago. Pittman has governed as an unabashed progressive, and Anne Arundel is clearly more moderate than that. But he’s also thrived by defying expectations, and Anne Arundel is much more diverse — and is becoming more liberal — than it used to be.

Haire, like Hough, is portraying herself as a typical suburban parent, someone you’d meet at a PTA meeting, and her criticisms of Pittman are about quality-of-life issues rather than national Republican talking points. In fact, she sounds similar to Hough, and it’s easier to tap into voters’ general state of ennui when you’re running against an incumbent.

But Pittman is an unconventional politician who was the first elected official of any consequence to endorse Moore for governor, and the Democrats seem to have a solid turnout operation in Anne Arundel, infused in part by the spirit of the late House Speaker Mike Busch (D). Both candidates have independent expenditure entities working on their behalf.

Hough and Haire victories would show that at least part of the electorate in their respective counties bought their attempts to portray themselves as moderates. They’d be governing with fairly divided county councils, so they could not veer too far to the right as county executives. And their jurisdictions are likely to remain political battlegrounds for the foreseeable future. That’s a recipe for relevance for both Haire and Hough in future discussions of possible GOP statewide and congressional candidates.

It’s not that Republicans don’t have other appealing contenders on the ballot this fall — Maryland GOP Chair Dirk Haire (Jessica’s husband) has been especially strategic about recruiting and encouraging conservative women to run for local offices and legislative seats. But some of these Republicans — Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger and Julie Giordano, the GOP nominee for county executive in Wicomico County come to mind —seem more like regional up-and-comers who might some day be able to contend for Republican Rep. Andy Harris’ congressional seat rather than candidates with statewide appeal. In that regard, Hough and Jessica Haire have more potential.

Yes, Harford County will elect a new Republican county executive this year, state Sen. Robert Cassilly. But smart as he is, his statewide appeal seems limited. Former Howard County Executive Allen Kittleman (R) can’t be counted out as he wages his rematch with the man who defeated him in 2018, Democrat Calvin Ball. But it’s hard to imagine a moderate like Kittleman ever winning a statewide Republican primary.

2026 is a lifetime away. Who knows what Maryland will look like politically then? What we do know is that Jessica Haire and Michael Hough would be good members of the GOP bench if they win in November. If they lose, that bench becomes a lot thinner — and the party’s future prospects a lot starker.