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Democrats Didn't Lose Governor's Races Because of a GOP Wave. They Lost Because of Bad Candidates.


I knew Democrat Anthony Brown was in trouble in the race for Maryland governor when every single voter I spoke with Tuesday—including several who voted for Barack Obama—at a polling station in a swing district in Baltimore County, just outside the Baltimore city line in the Overlea neighborhood, brought up the rain tax.

The rain tax is a “stormwater management fee” signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley in 2012 that requires the state’s nine largest counties, plus Baltimore city, to help fund the reduction of pollution in Chesapeake Bay caused by stormwater runoff. The tax is hardly draconian—in Baltimore County, homeowners pay a flat fee that can range from $21 to $39, while commercial property owners are assessed based on the proportion of impervious surfaces (parking lots, roofs, etc.) on their land.

Yet everyone I spoke with cited it as the crowning example of the nickel-and-diming taxing regime under O’Malley that also includes the $60-per-year “flush tax” to upgrade sewage treatment plants and higher taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and gas. “The rain tax was the last straw,” said Mike Eline, 64, who does pest control at the University of Maryland campus in Baltimore. “How many taxes can there possibly be?” “It seems any reason they can, they say, ‘let’s tax the people,’” said Daniel, a 63-year-old African-American warehouse worker. “What really upsets me is the rain tax. Rain is something natural that’s just given to us. Nobody has to work for it. But they say, ‘let’s tax it.’”

At the national level, pundits and triumphant Republicans are pointing to Republican Larry Hogan’s win over Brown in Maryland as the ultimate evidence of the 2014 anti-Democratic wave. Not only did Republicans win Senate seats in red and purple states, the claim goes, but they won governorships in true-blue Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois as well.

I’m skeptical of that claim. No doubt, disaffection and low turnout among core Democratic voters hurt the party's gubernatorial candidates in blue states as it did Senate candidates in red and purple ones. And anti-Washington, anti-Obama sentiment certainly played a role in the GOP's Senate takeover. But to explain why some Democratic gubernatorial candidates lost in blue states while others (such as Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island, Dannel Malloy in Connecticut, and John Hickenlooper in Colorado) managed to hang on, one really needs to take into account the state and local context of the races.

In Illinois, Republican businessman Bruce Rauner ran against the longstanding dysfunction and fiscal imbalance of the Democratic-dominated state government. In Massachusetts, Republican ex-insurance executive Charlie Baker, a true moderate in the New England Republican mold, ran against the irremediably uninspiring Martha Coakley. And in Maryland, Hogan ran against O’Malley’s tax increases and the unbearable lightness of his anointed successor, Brown. If there was something that bound these races together, it was not anti-Obama ire but a general sense that it was a time for a course correction in state governments that under Democratic control had drifted further left even than their blue-state electorates, and that the unthreatening Republicans running for governor represented a tolerable means of providing a balancing counter-force.

But why would Coakley and Brown go down, while Hickenlooper and Malloy survived? Here one has to consider the ultimate local context, the quality of the candidates. Hickenlooper and Malloy provoked plenty opposition in their states, not least with their signing of sweeping gun control legislation after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. But voters also had a clear sense of where these men stood. The same could not be said for the lackluster Coakley and, especially, for Brown, who ran one of the worst campaigns I’ve ever observed up close. The son of a Jamaican father and Swiss mother, a colonel in the Army Reserve and former JAG officer whom O’Malley plucked out of relative obscurity in the Maryland House of Delegates to be his running mate in 2006, Brown is an amiable enough fellow but gives off the distinct vibe of a second-stringer. His big chance to show his stuff, the launch of the Maryland insurance exchange under Obamacare, was a total fiasco.

He managed to dispatch two challengers in the Democratic primary, but then proceeded to run a defensive, utterly unimaginative campaign against Hogan. He hammered Hogan with negative ads that sought to frame him as “dangerous,” an obvious overreach. Hogan, a former congressman’s son who runs a real estate business, has awfully vague plans for cutting the state’s taxes and spending and is no Charlie Baker–style technocratic moderate, but he’s more a shambling Willy Loman than the Ted Cruz incarnate Brown tried to make him out to be.

Meanwhile, Brown gave voters precious little sense of where he would take the state after eight years under O’Malley. He swung between standard liberal promises for, say, expanding pre-K and centrist pledges to improve the state’s business climate that served only to validate Hogan’s strong anti-tax message. “Republicans, independents and more than a few Democrats were looking for a change in direction, and Brown never provided that sense that he was the change,” said Mike Morrill, a Democratic strategist in Maryland, told The Washington Post. “He never created the Brown vision for the state… He made the major front-runner's mistake, trying to protect his lead instead of building his lead. As his lead eroded, he ran a negative campaign. He was trying to stop the erosion rather than giving people a reason to vote for him.”

Finally, Brown was not helped by the rapid falloff in public approval for O’Malley, who has been spending much of the past year traveling the country in preparation for a presidential run that now, with his Maryland legacy imperiled, seems even more of a pipe dream than before.

As much as I believe Brown’s loss in blue Maryland needs to be viewed in a state context, there is one clear, general unifying theme: the voters I spoke to in Baltimore County were as unwilling to grant their Democratic leaders in the state credit for the improving economy as voters nationally are willing to credit Obama. The voters I spoke with all said their own economic situations were basically stable and better than they were a few years ago, but they nonetheless felt as if the state of affairs was not where it should be. Eline, the university pest-control worker, has a secure job and is close to retiring, but as someone whose ancestors worked at the shuttered Sparrows Point steel plant, he worries about the decline of industry in Maryland, and sees Hogan as more likely to do something to address that. Did he worry that Hogan is also more likely to cut state spending in ways that could cut into his own pay as a state employee? “That’s something I haven’t given deep thought to,” he told me. “But still, I think overall, [Hogan] would be better for everyone.”

Contradictions also jumped out when I spoke with Darren and Suprena Bennett, an African-American couple in their 40s. Darren, a barber who voted for O’Malley twice, expressed his weariness with taxes, while Suprena, an employee of the University of Maryland in College Park, said she wanted to see more funding for financial aid. But wouldn’t more spending on financial aid require, in some form or other, higher taxes? "That’s true, but…," Darren said, trailing off. Regardless, he voted for Hogan.

In Maryland, as just about everywhere, the public is restless and aggrieved in ways voters themselves have trouble articulating. But that doesn't mean a single narrative explains gubernatorial races that have little in common beyond that basic disquiet. Democrats in particular should be cautious about overdrawing lessons from these losses. In blue Maryland, a better candidate more willing and able to make a positive case for the legacy of Democratic leadership—yes, including a small tax to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay—probably would have sufficed.