Some observations and thoughts the day after the primary election

The primary election in Frederick County, and throughout Maryland, was yesterday. The ballot is now set for the general election in November.

Between now and then there will be no shortage of analysis, plenty of strategic planning, endless fundraising, more signs (for fewer candidates), some polling, a lot of campaign events, mailings, robocalls, emails and social media sharing, an increasing amount of newspaper, radio and television ads, and more. And most of it will be to pay for and distribute a few basic and simple messages (true and not true) to all the folks who didn’t know enough or care enough to take a few minutes to vote yesterday…but who will or might still vote, and will double or triple the primary turnout.

There will be a lot to talk about as all this unfolds over the next four and a half months. But below, in no particular order, are some early observations and thoughts about the primary election results, and what is ahead.

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• Voter turnout was awful, as it often is, here and elsewhere, in the partisan primaries of a mid-term election. From the Frederick News Post this morning:

Preliminary results Tuesday showed that more than 23 percent of Frederick County’s eligible voters weighed in for the primaries, a better turnout than expected.

Stuart Harvey, Frederick County’s election director, said he was “pleasantly surprised” that 34,799 of the 149,393 active eligible voters had cast ballots so far.

These numbers do not include absentee or provisional ballots, which will be tallied in the next couple of weeks.

About 24 percent of eligible Frederick County voters participated in the 2010 primary election.

There is and will be a lot more to say about voter turnout, but for the moment, suffice it to say that it is always very disappointing that a sizable majority of registered voters in our community do not vote.

Here is a good piece from Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun today: “Excuses aside, Maryland voter turnout an embarrassment

• In the races for Frederick County’s new charter government, six of the eight Democrats running for county executive and county council are women. They are Jan Gardner for County Executive, Linda Norris and Susan Reeder Jesse for county council At-Large, Annette Breiling for county council District 2, MC Keegan-Ayer for county council District 3, and Jessica Fitzwater for county council District 4. In the same races, the only Republican woman is Ellen Bartlett, who won her party’s primary in District 1, with 36% of the vote.

• None of the more moderate or mainstream Republicans won in any of the partisan races. David Gray, Mark Sweadner, Eric Besch, Wayne Creadick, Justin Kiska, Carole Jaar Sepe, Fred Ugast, Ralph Whitmore and Kevin Grubb all lost to far right and/or developer supported opponents.

• County Commissioner president Blaine Young won a three-way race for the Republican nomination in the race to be the first county executive. But he is politically savvy enough to know that the overall circumstances of his win should give him serious cause for concern. Commissioner Young received approximately 53% of the vote in his Republican primary, and his two opponents, David Gray and Mark Sweadner, together combined for more than 46% of the vote.

That result is after spending multiple times more money leading up to the primary than any candidate has ever spent in Frederick County, for any county office, for the entire election. And that very heavy spending could not stand in more stark contrast to the money raised and spent by his opponents, who probably didn’t spent much more together than Young spent on liquor alone so far.

Consider that Blaine Young has spent somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, most of which has come from development interests, and that even though he has been profligate and wasteful in how he has spent that money, it has purchased countywide robocalls, more advertising, by far, than anyone has ever purchased for a primary in the county, massive mailing after massive mailing of expensive and slick, full color campaign pieces…that have been notable for their deception and outright lies…and much more. I could go on about various other elements (standard and not), but the basic point has been made: Combining his bully pulpit as the president and spokesperson of the Board of County Commissioners, his generally high profile beyond that, his unprecedented and almost unbelievable campaign spending, a long list of other campaign tactics, and his willingness to manipulate facts, misinform voters, twist arms and otherwise use what can only be called legal bribery, as well as threats, to garner endorsements, pulling out an unexpectedly narrow margin of victory should leave him very concerned about November.

Now, it must be said that in many primary campaigns, the expectation and the reality is that most of those who vote for a losing candidate in their party, then go on to support the winner in the general election. That’s normal, but it would not be an accurate description of what is likely in Frederick County this year. Certainly, some unknown percentage of the Republicans that voted for David Gray or Mark Sweadner will keep their vote in their party and vote for Blaine in November. But, no less certainly, there are many Republicans that voted for Gray or Sweadner, and absolutely will not vote for Blaine. Some may not vote for county executive at all, but most of those will cast a vote for Jan Gardner. But, of course, we don’t know how many.

No doubt, Young will continue to raise and spend obscene amounts of money to fund what is likely to be an ugly and deceptive campaign, all the way to November.

• Billy Shreve and Bud Otis took the first two Republican spots in the county council At-Large race. But it is worth keeping in mind that in a crowded, multi-candidate field — and there were eight Republicans running at-large — a person could advance (by finishing in one of the top two spots) even if more than half of the Republican primary voters reviled them, and wouldn’t vote for them under any circumstances. Current county commissioner Billy Shreve, for instance, did take the top spot in the at-large race in his party, even though more than 60% of the Republican primary voters chose not to give him one of their two votes.

That may not be unusual, generally speaking, but in this case, Commissioner Shreve was the only incumbent in the race, he certainly had the greatest name recognition, he was strongly supported by Blaine Young, he probably had the most money to spend on his campaign (I’m not certain of that one, yet), and many of his relatively unknown opponents garnered their support with relatively low budget and low profile campaigns. Shreve is undoubtedly pleased to finish first in that field, and to advance to the general election. But he should not be reassured with the way he got there.

• Kirby Delauter has the benefit of being from the district that is most heavily weighted to Republicans. There are 14,266 registered Republicans in the district, which is the largest by land area in the county, compare to just 8,663 registered Democrats. In many ways, his primary result was not unlike the one Blaine Young had in his county-wide race. Kirby is the incumbent, he had strong and active support from Blaine Young, he had many times more signs (including huge signs, and even highway billboards), and so on. He ran against Ralph Whitmore, who only recently changed his party affiliation to Republican (some say just to make sure Kirby had someone running against him in the primary), and who had an extremely low budget, low profile campaign, relatively few signs (which appeared to be cut from his leftover signs from his run for office four years ago), and so on.

And yet, despite this huge advantages, Delauter, like Blaine Young, received barely more than 53% of the Republican primary voters, while his single opponent fell just short of 46%. For an incumbent, with vastly greater resources and all those other advantages, barely surviving his primary against a candidate with the sort of campaign Whitmore had is more than a shot across the bow.

Also similar to Blaine’s situation, many of those who voted for Whitmore will not simply stick with their party and vote for Delauter in November. In fact, it seems pretty clear to me, all things considered, that a sizable proportion of the votes for Whitmore were primarily a vote against Delauter.

Nevertheless, as noted, their is a sizable difference in this district between the number of registered Republicans and registered Democrats. Mark Long, who won the Democrat’s primary in the district will need to hold on to many of those Whitmore voters, do likewise with a good number of the Republicans who did not vote yesterday, but will vote in November, and do quite well among unaffiliated voters. Before yesterday, that may have seen like a longshot, but given the election results, it now seems much more plausible. That is all the more so because Mark Long is a strong and highly credible candidate — a lifelong resident of the area, a family man and small business owner who has a long history of being involved in his church and community in many ways, and who understands the community, it’s residents and the issues that affect and concern them most.

• While turnout was low for both parties, a notably higher percentage of Republicans voted in the county races than Democrats. Republican turnout in the county races was close to 32%, while Democrat turnout was 25%. Republican had more candidates, and more contested races, but that doesn’t really explain the difference.

• Because there are more registered Republicans than Democrats in the county, if the Republicans also turn out at a higher rate than Democrats in November, that combination of factors could have a significant and even determining effect on the countywide races, and the races in the three council districts where Democrats will have to attract many Republican voters, and win a majority of unaffiliated voters, to have a chance to win.

• There is little doubt that many Republicans will cross party lines in the county races and in the three council districts with significant Republican pluralities. To some extent that is always true, of course, and there will always also be some Democrats that cross party lines to vote for one or more Republicans. But it is likely — certain, I think — that substantially more Republicans will be crossing party lines in those races than the other way around. There are a variety of reasons for that voters generally cross party lines more in local races than statewide and national races, including the fact that the nature and range of issues that are most important to voters is different, that people often have direct experience or personal relationships with candidates, and many others.

But I think the biggest reason many more Republicans will cross party lines than Democrats, in Frederick County, this year, is that the Republican primaries eliminated all the more moderate candidates (as noted above) and nominated a party ticket that is comprised of:

1) Incumbents who have already alienated many in their party, by their votes on a variety of issues, and even by their personal behavior; and…

2) Both those incumbents and all the other candidates are too extreme and/or are so clearly and heavily influenced by development interests that many in their party will consider the alternatives. Going hand in hand with that is that, overall, the Democrats in those races are well-qualified moderates that many Republicans can and will support in a local election.

• Even if that is so, while the greater crossover vote for Democrats can make a big difference, and perhaps all the difference, two other factors will combine with that advantage to largely determine some of the races. They are:

1) How much of a margin can the moderate Democrats (since all the moderate Republicans have been eliminated) have against the far right and developer-supported Republicans among unaffiliated voters. There are more approximately 33,000 unaffiliated voters in Frederick County. Historically, a lower percentage of unaffiliated voters vote, but many do, of course, and there is a big difference between winning them 55-45 and 65-35, or better. And…

2) What will be the voter turnout rate of Democrats, and moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters. If Democrats turnout at a lower rate, much less a significantly lower rate, than Republicans, the gap that crossover votes will have to make up will be larger, and…possibly…too large.

• Finally, for now, I’d like to share one other thing. During the discussion and debate over the nature of the charter, when it was being drafted by the BOCC (Blaine Young) appointed a heavily development-oriented charter writing board, I had a number of serious concerns about and/or objections to elements of the draft charter.

One of those (I’ll skip mentioning others here) was the composition of the county council (how many, and how whether they would be at-large positions, all by districts, or one of a number of possible combinations of the two…AND the district map that came with the initial charter.

Many people probably don’t realize that the map was selected and approved by the charter writing board, as part of the charter. But it is important to understand that out of the vast range of choices about how the map could be drawn, the options could, would and did have a very substantial and significant impact on the nature of elections in those districts, and, by extension, the county.

Back in late 2011 and early 2012, I was fairly vocal about these concerns, pointing out a number of significant issues — or flaws. Some of them related to gerrymandering, with the initial district map, but moreover with the process established as part of the charter for altering the map every ten years (after the census).

Here is a particular part of something I wrote in an online discussion at the time:

THE PROPOSED COUNCIL DISTRICTS

Not necessarily apparent from a quick review of the overall map, the districts that have been drawn, and that are part of the charter, and that would be in place until the lines are redrawn after the next national census, is that three of the five districts have significant Republican majorities.

Of course, it is not surprising that three of the five districts would have a plurality of Republicans, given that there are still more Republicans than Democrats in the county…though the gap has closed significantly in recent years, and is now only about six or seven thousand (there are more than 140,000 registered voters in the county, I think – I can look up exact numbers later).

It is virtually certain that at least three of the five districts will be held by Republicans until and at the time of the first redistricting process. It is less certain, but highly likely that the county council will will have an overall majority of Republicans until and/or at the time of the first redistricting process. In order for Democrats to hold an overall majority of the council at the time of redistricting, they would have to have both districts with a plurality of Democrats AND both at-large seats…and, in modern times, the county very rarely has had even one Democrat in the top two positions in an at-large election, and has never had both.

It is also important to realize that having three solidly Republican districts means MORE than just three council districts sending Republicans to Winchester Hall.

This is NOT an overblown point or groundless assumption.

As safe Republican districts, sending only one person, the race that will matter will be the probably-multi-candidate Republican primary election. So, the council seat will be filled by someone chosen by a plurality of a rural Republican electorate. The qualification is important, as that Republican base is different than one that includes all county Republicans, including those in and around the City of Frederick.

Democrats and unaffiliated voters in those three districts will be irrelevant. And Republicans from in and around Frederick will not be participating.

That’s a partial/quick explanation of why the odds are VERY good that these three rural Republican districts, “electing” council members in relatively lower turnout, multi-candidate primaries, will send very conservative Republicans who fit into a category that is part Tea Party and part Farm Bureau.

I could talk about what that might mean on many issues, but suffice it to say that any combination of Tea Party and Farm Bureau winning those primaries are very likely to be property rights extremists, who are opposed to smart growth, even zoning at all, not to mention investing in agricultural preservation, etc.

Anyone who wants to dismiss such comments out of hand ought to take a close look – precinct by precinct – at how Republican primary voters in those districts vote!

And so, today, it is not surprising that the Republican primaries in those three districts were won by Ellen Bartlett, Tony Chmelik and Kirby Delauter, who are all, by many definitions that work for me, far right wing extremists, who are, among other things, more interested in dismantling county government and serving the interests of developers than managing county government well, providing services efficiently, and planning growth in a responsible manner.

Not surprisingly, they are all utterly supportive of Blaine Young, his way of doing business, and his policy agenda. We already have more than three and a half years of Kirby Delauter’s tenure as a commissioner to verify that in his case. And, to share just one anecdotal story of many here at the moment, when Ellen Bartlett first entered the race (at the very last moment), she had an impromptu chat or interview with Bob Miller, when she called in to his show one morning that week.

Bob asked Ellen Bartlett why she was running. At first she did not have an answer. Then she said something about good jobs. Bob followed up by asking her how she planned to encourage or bring good jobs to the county. Rather than answer, she wandered in a different direction, but Bob — to my surprise — actually came back tot he question and asked her again how she planned to encourage new jobs here. She hesitated, paused, and then exclaimed loudly: “By electing Blaine Young!”

One other question he asked her was about what a county council members does, what they are responsible for? Her reply was that she really didn’t know, but that she would find out when she got there.

Since then, in various venues, she has made abundantly clear that her reason for running is simply, if not solely, to support Blaine and his agenda, whatever, whenever.

It’s a sad statement when the voters in a major party primary, in a district encompassing roughly a fifth of Frederick County residents, nominate someone like Ellen Bartlett to represent them (and, in a real way, all county residents) on the new county council.

Fortunately, there is still a chance to avoid that outcome.

Even though those three districts have a substantially plurality of Republican voters, creating the possibility that a plurality of Republican primary voters, in a low turnout primary, could select a county council member in a crowded field of primary candidates, it is not a sure thing that that nominee will win in November.

Certainly, they have a significant partisan advantage, and it requires a combination of things (some mentioned above) to obtain a different…and unexpected…outcome. But the fact that that relatively small slice of voters was likely to, and did, nominate extreme right wing candidates, that moderate Republicans, a majority of unaffiliated voters and the great majority of Democrats can’t and won’t support, creates the possibility that a credible and moderate Democrat, with a strong campaign, can pull an upset.

If that were to happen in just one of those three districts, it would very substantially alter the chances that the first county council under the new charter would be fairly balanced, and not one with a four member majority that is primarily interested in simply saying yes to whatever Blaine Young wants to do.

We’ve experienced enough of that.

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So…take nothing for granted, inform yourself about the issues and candidates, support good candidates with contributions, volunteer time, and by sharing information with family and friends. There really is a great deal at stake.


If you would like to discuss any of this, you can do so under the link to this blog entry on the Envision Frederick County page on Facebook.

Election Summary Report (unofficial results, without absentee voters included):
http://www.frederickcountymd.gov/documents/254/7936/results-1_201406242158526265.htm

Frederick County Board of Elections

The complete Frederick County Charter (as a pdf file)

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