Earlier this week, Sen. Barbara Mikulski assembled a rather exclusive Democratic leadership meeting in Annapolis. Democratic leaders remaining in office in 2015 only. It was billed as looking ahead to 2016 and beyond; but the day-after reports suggested more time spent pondering what went wrong in 2014. The leaders seemed to be looking for some secret, hidden answer. Or maybe, for a scapegoat.
The election answer is simple. More people voted for Larry Hogan.
But why did folks vote for Hogan instead of Brown? Let’s not overlook the obvious. Politics is often more about image than substance.
Larry Hogan won because he looks and sounds like a governor.
A truism of American politics is this: Voters prefer a father figure for president.
Even better, a kindly grandfather figure. Strong, protective, reassuring. Someone to look up to. Retired generals are perfect. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is the quintessential grandfather figure of the modern era. See also: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulyesses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt. President Ronald Reagan wasn’t a general, but he was the grandfather figure from central casting.
What voters like in a president is the same thing they want in a governor, when it’s available. Martin O’Malley came closer to being a rock star than a grandfather. You can see how a rock star might be appealing once in a while. But after eight years of a rock star, the voters were ready for a grandfather.
Anthony Brown reminded the voters not so much of a rock star as a backup singer. Brown tried to run in part on the image of a returning war veteran. But he was clearly a junior-level officer, not a general. He was a lieutenant governor, not a governor, and Marylanders have never promoted a lieutenant governor. He was a father, but not a grandfather.
BTW, the father or grandfather concept doesn’t preclude female candidates. Voters will just as readily vote for a grandmother figure. Think Prime Minister Golda Meir in Israel, or Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. Will Hillary Clinton fill the grandmother role? Chelsea and her husband have done their part. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s first grandchild was born in September. Can you see the opportunity for updating the Bill and Hillary brand? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Moving right along to our second point, Larry Hogan had a simple message: “Cut taxes.” Anthony Brown’s message was a work in progress. He never quite figured out how to step out of O’Malley’s shadow. His grand policy proposal was universal pre-K. A popular idea, but it wasn’t clear how he was going to pay for it. The prospect of cutting taxes was more appealing to the average voter than the prospect of raising money for pre-K.
More damaging, in the absence of a coherent Democratic program, the Brown campaign went negative. Nobody likes negative campaign advertising, but most political operatives seem to think it works. It didn’t work for Brown in 2014.
Maryland Democrats need to get over their 2014 rejection by the voters. Sure, the party was overconfident, start to finish. Sure, candidates and the party failed to get out the vote. Sure, individual Democrats didn’t bother to vote. Or if they did, they voted Republican.
But 2014 was, in the end, a Republican year. Republicans also won the governor’s race in Massachusetts. Maryland and Massachusetts are usually mentioned in the same breath as the two most Democratic states in the Union.
I’ve strayed far from Sen. Mikulski’s leadership meeting. Now that we’ve ruminated over the election returns, the leadership of the Democratic Party is a subject that needs sorely to be addressed. Watch this space for a future post on Democratic leadership in Maryland. I’m hoping to get to it before Christmas, but not before Thanksgiving.
— John Hayden