Josh Kurtz: The Biggest Loser

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By: Josh Kurtz 

There were winners and losers at the ballot box Tuesday. There were winners and losers in the endorsement game. There were, inevitably, winners and losers in the election night comportment department.

But the biggest loser of all was democracy.

What if they held an election and nobody came? We just found out.

Approximately 460,000 Democrats cast their ballots in the gubernatorial primary. That represents roughly a 23 percent turnout – and that’s an embarrassment.

Anthony Brown racked up 236,000 votes, enough for 51 percent. Sixty thousand of those votes came during early voting, and 176,000 were made on primary day.

If you subscribe to the theory that Brown, as the Democratic nominee, is the heavy favorite in November, then 236,000 people just decided who the next governor is going to be for a state with a population of 6 million.

In race after race, the raw vote numbers are stunningly low. Take, just randomly, one of the hottest state Senate primaries in the state, between Sen. Ulysses Currie (D) and Del. Melony Griffith (D) in Prince George’s County’s 25th district. About 13,000 people voted.

In the adjoining 26th district, where organized labor (except for the teachers union), the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and Maryland Working Families had declared jihad on Sen. Anthony Muse (D) and were presumably driving turnout, about 14,000 Democrats voted.

That’s better than supposedly civic-minded Montgomery County, where the most contentious Senate primary, between former Del. Cheryl Kagan (D) and Del. Luiz Simmons (D), drew just 8,000 voters. It’s clear the Prince George’s turnout was inflated by comparison because the Brown campaign was pulling so many votes there.

Only 81,000 voters participated in the marquee Democratic primary for county executive. And in Baltimore city, where Marilyn Mosby’s win over Gregg Bernstein in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney was one of the big upsets of the night, less than 62,000 people voted.

Looking for an uptick of interest among Maryland Republicans in an election year that will surely favor the GOP nationally? Just 208,000 Republicans showed up for the gubernatorial primary.

In Anne Arundel County, where the state GOP depends on stalwart support and where a fascinating primary for county executive topped the bill, only 31,000 Republicans voted (33,000 Anne Arundel Democrats voted in the gubernatorial primary).

It was clear from the outset that holding a primary in late June instead of the traditional mid-September would make political professionals jittery; it scrambled calculations and upended rituals. It was hard to figure who was going to turn out, and even harder to figure out how to get people interested.

Well, we now know the answers to those questions: No one turned out.

The early primary was supposedly scheduled so the state would comply with a federal mandate that service men and women stationed overseas would have adequate time to have their ballots counted for federal elections. But it had the ancillary benefit of giving Maryland Democrats adequate time to unify for the general election in case their primary for governor got too bloody (given the gracious remarks of all three contenders Tuesday night, that shouldn’t be a problem).

More than anything, though, this primary turned into an incumbent protection racket.

In legislative races Tuesday, just two incumbent state senators lost (three, if you count Verna Jones Rodwell, who had dropped out of the race but remained on the ballot), and nine House members went down to defeat.

About half those races had their own unique set of circumstances: In Western Maryland, Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley (R) was targeted by the tea party, and his loss to Del. Michael Hough (R) seemed inevitable even before Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in Virginia. On the Eastern Shore, Sen. Rich Colburn (R) was damaged by personal scandal.

Scandal also did in Del. Don Dwyer (R) in Anne Arundel, and a whiff of scandal doomed appointed Del. Darren Swain (D) in Prince George’s.

Two Baltimore city delegates, Keiffer Mitchell and Melvin Stukes, were directly done in by redistricting, as they were forced to run in a one-seat subdistrict against another incumbent, Del. Keith Haynes (D). Incidentally, just 3,800 people voted in that primary.

And at least three other losing lawmakers were indirectly impacted by redistricting, as they found themselves running in recast districts with an altered set of opponents: Del. Don Elliott (R) in Western Maryland, Del. Joseph Boteler (R) in Baltimore County, and Del. Shawn Tarrant (D) in Baltimore city.

So that leaves just two legislators – Del. Michael Smigiel (R) from the Upper Shore and Del. Michael Summers (D) from Prince George's – whose losses were truly a surprise.

New York State, like Maryland, has traditionally held its gubernatorial year primaries in mid-September, and New York also tried to comply with the federal mandate on military ballots. But officials did things a little differently there: the Empire State held primaries for congressional offices on Tuesday, but voters will select their nominees for governor and other state offices, as usual, in September.

It may be more expensive and more complicated, but that’s an option Maryland officials ought to consider, because the people voted with their feet, and they chose to stay home.

That may be just the way the incumbents like it. But that’s no way to run a democracy. 

NOTE TO READERS: This column is going on a short break. It will return in mid-July. Thanks, as usual, for reading!

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.