Monday, August 16, 2010

Council At-Large Geography, Part One

With County Executive Ike Leggett running unopposed in September and no chance of primary upsets in the races for Governor, U.S. Senator or Congressional Districts 4 or 8, the County Council At-Large contest is the premier election in the county. It affects every single part of the county, features all four incumbents running against two plausible challengers and has implications for the 2014 Executive race. It is also rather unpredictable as many round-robin races are. In this new series, we look at how the incumbents performed in 2006, why they earned the votes they received and what their prospects are for reelection. We also examine to the best extent possible the chances for one of the challengers to break through.

While we will tap into our database of 2006 primary results to illustrate many of our points, it is worth noting the ways in which 2010 will be different. Recognizing those differences will impact which 2006 data are relevant today and which are not.

1. 2010 will likely see lower turnout.
In 2002, 44.8% of MoCo Democrats voted in the primary. That was primarily driven by the Congressional District 8 primary pitting Mark Shriver against Chris Van Hollen, in which 47.6% of Democrats voted. The epic County Council slate war between the End Gridlock team and Blair Ewing’s slate probably contributed to that turnout rate. In 2006, 40.0% of MoCo Democrats voted in the primary, which featured a contested County Executive race, a strong challenge by Donna Edwards against Congressman Al Wynn and a U.S. Senate primary between Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume. This year will see no such high-profile races and turnout will almost certainly be lower. Perhaps this year’s turnout rate will be comparable to 1998, when just 33.1% of MoCo Democrats voted in the primary.

Low turnout tends to favor incumbents because of their pre-existing name recognition. But it also favors any smart, well-funded candidates who have identified their voters and know how to get them to the polls.

2. The Post is at war against MCEA.
Historically, the Post has based its endorsements on whether candidates adhered to its pro-growth outlook, often using support for the ICC as a deciding factor. This year, the Post has declared war on MCEA and against public employee unions more generally. We are skeptical that the Post’s repeated anti-union editorials will have a mass effect on the public due to its declining influence. But the Post has affected the thinking of the candidates. Post editorial writers have made clear that any candidate who contributes to MCEA’s PAC risks not receiving the newspaper’s endorsement, sometimes by making crude threats to candidates in cell phone calls. We hear that this has reduced candidate contributions to the teachers’ PAC and will accordingly impact MCEA’s independent expenditure program.

3. The economy has forced some candidates to change their messages.
In their prior races, at-large incumbents Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg emphasized limiting development. With the economy now in the tank, both of them have largely dropped that plank from their platforms. Will that impact their ability to turn out their voters? And will voters who pay attention find them to be credible? Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, on the other hand, were for economic growth back when growth was not cool. The message that they have always had will sell better now.

4. District 20 is quiet.
State Legislative District 20 is the most liberal district in MoCo, and perhaps in Maryland. It was fired up in 2006 because of its spectacular Senate race in which progressive hero Jamie Raskin knocked out long-time incumbent Ida Ruben. Raskin had a very strong volunteer base and an excellent get-out-the-vote operation that boosted the district’s Democratic turnout rate to 43.2%. The fact that outgoing Delegate Peter Franchot was running for Comptroller probably helped that rate. In 2002, the district was energized by the Congressional District 8 race as well as former Senator Ida Ruben’s successful effort to defeat her hated enemy, Delegate Dana Dembrow. Democratic turnout that year was an extraordinary 54.0%. This year, Raskin is running unopposed, the incumbent Delegates are certain to be reelected and there are no top-ballot primaries. District 20’s 2010 Democratic turnout could be close to its 1998 level of 34.6%. That will hurt at-large incumbent Marc Elrich, who has a large base in the district, but he could very well make up those votes elsewhere.

5. Mike Subin is not on the ballot.
Mike Subin was a five-term incumbent who was on Doug Duncan’s End Gridlock slate in 2002, but who finished in fifth place in 2006. Many observers were surprised by Subin’s defeat, but he had lackluster fundraising, was not on the Apple Ballot and was limited on the campaign trail by a bicycle accident.

Subin may have lost, but he did well in a few areas. Subin finished second in North Potomac and Damascus and finished third in Laytonsville, Clarksburg, Potomac, Germantown, and most critically, Gaithersburg. Gaithersburg (including both the city and the unincorporated areas) cast the second-highest total of at-large votes in 2006 (60,926) behind only Silver Spring (127,867). That area has now been awakened by the debate over the Gaithersburg West Master Plan and could have a bigger impact on this election than it did last time. Subin’s absence frees up a lot of votes that should be a focus of any intelligent at-large candidates.

6. Will new Democrats turn out?
In 2006, 267,825 registered MoCo Democrats were eligible to vote in the primary. As of June 2010, MoCo had 318,868 registered Democrats, most of whom probably joined the party to vote for Barack Obama. That means there are a whole lot more potential primary voters out there. Many political observers dismiss the possibility that Obama voters will pay attention to local elections. But consider this: the 2008 District 4 Democratic special election primary had 7,658 voters while the 2009 District 4 Democratic special election primary had 8,718 voters – a 14% increase. Given the fact that Nancy Navarro defeated Ben Kramer in the latter election by just 62 votes, it’s entirely possible that new voters handed her the win.

Most candidates target “Super Dems,” or Democrats who have a history of voting in past primaries, for their voter contact. That model fails to account for new voters. It would require lots of resources and considerable sophistication to locate, communicate with and turn out new voters. But any candidate who does that successfully will have a leg up in this year’s at-large primary.

We’ll look at 2006 turnout in Part Two.