Maryland Democrats turned to a homegrown legend and an up-and-comer from New Jersey on Monday night as the state's majority party works to dig out from the rubble of last year's crushing defeat in the race for governor.
About 500 people attended the Maryland Democratic Party's second big fundraising event of the year, billed as a salute to retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. The headliner was Sen. Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor who is seen as one of the party's rising national stars.
After Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown lost to Republican Larry Hogan following what was widely regarded as an abysmal campaign, the party found itself in the unaccustomed position of trailing the GOP in fundraising by a large margin.
"We're rebuilding step by step, inch by inch, every day from the ground up," said D. Bruce Poole, the former House of Delegates majority leader who took over the state party chairmanship this year. Poole said the $50-a-ticket event was sold out, as was a fundraiser in Prince George's County this spring. The two events brought in about $450,000 in contributions, he said.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Monday's gala gave the Democrats an opportunity to shed light on their strengths after a couple of weeks of news about Hogan's strong showing in polls.
"Losing the governorship is always tough," she said. "It always calls for reassessment, and it always calls for a time of re-energizing their base."
Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College, said last year's gubernatorial loss — marked by poor turnout in Democratic strongholds such as Baltimore — exposed the Democrats' weak get-out-the-vote operation.
"It really showed the party wasn't as strong or as organized as many people thought," she said.
Monday night's gathering was one more opportunity for the party to draw on the enduring popularity of Mikulski, 79, who is leaving office after 40 years of comfortably winning seats in Congress.
She promised the crowd she'll keep active after she leaves the Senate — whether she is teaching or working for a nonprofit, or in some other role.
"I'm going to stand up for a better tomorrow," she said. "I ain't shy, even though I may be retiring from this job."
Booker, showing the oratorical flair that has some Democrats seeing him as a potential future presidential nominee, brought the house down with an impassioned tribute to Mikulski's career.
"She makes the Energizer Bunny just quit and walk away," he said.
Michael Morrill, a veteran party strategist who once worked for Mikulski, said the party couldn't have picked a better person to highlight what Marylanders like about the Democrats. But he said he was even more excited to see all the young faces in the room.
"I want to see the next Senator Mikulski — a person who will be a four-decade leader."
He said the party will be better off if the next primary for governor is more competitive than last year's.
"We've got great candidates, and people won't know that if we coronate a candidate," he said.
Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he expected the Democrats to do well with the Mikulski tribute.
"If I was them, I'd do the same thing," he said.
Deckman said Mikulski is likely to be a draw for Democrats as long as she's healthy. But apart from her, Deckman said, the party lacks a clear leader — unlike 12 years ago when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had just won the State House. Then, she said, the Democrats had a presumptive leader in Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Now, Deckman said, "There's no clear other person I can think of."
One of the purposes of Monday night's event was to highlight the party's emerging leaders, Poole said — many of them in entry-level offices such as the House of Delegates or county councils.
"They're a pretty impressive group, and they're hardworking, and they're thinkers and they're doers," he said.
One such newcomer, Jessica Fitzwater, 32, was elected last year to the Frederick County Council.
"I think this is a very exciting time for the Democratic Party in Maryland," she said. "And we have very great years ahead of us."
Poole acknowledged that the Maryland party has lost much of its political infrastructure with O'Malley's departure.
"When the governor left, he took a lot of his people, and the party apparatus was not organized to exist in the absence of the governor," he said. "We're going to function as a very modern political party, regardless of whether we hold the governor's mansion."
But party-building can be expensive, and the Democrats no longer have an edge.
When the last state campaign finance reports were filed in January, they showed the Republicans had capitalized on Hogan's victory by raising $884,152 in a two-month span after the election. The Democrats' take during the same period: $12,000.
The perennially underfunded Republicans could look at a bank account flush with nearly $530,000. The Democrats had less than half that in the bank. Up-to-date figures will not be available until January, but Republicans have been raising money all year with the advantage of a governor in the State House.
Cluster said Hogan's popularity has kept GOP direct-mail fundraising robust even as the governor's treatment for cancer has kept him from an active role.
"I'm sure once he gets better, he'll do a lot for the party," Cluster said.
Democratic loyalists can continue to take comfort in their domination of the General Assembly and their electoral hold on three of Maryland's largest jurisdictions — Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. But they also know the Republicans have a stronger bench for future statewide contests than at any time in recent memory, with the election of county executives in Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford.
Compounding the challenges is a slow drift of Democrats from the voting rolls. The Democrats continue to hold a 2-1 registration advantage — a statistic that overstates their actual electoral strength — but they've lost about 67,000 of their 2 million registered voters since June 2013. And many registered Democrats clearly voted for Hogan in November or stayed home.
At the same time, Democrats have dominated their three big strongholds and Charles County, but they have fared poorly at the local level in much of the state — particularly rural areas, where Republicans dominate county commissions and legislative delegations.
Poole, who hails from Washington County, said one of his objectives is to make Democrats competitive in places where they aren't now. He said his efforts to build a broader party are getting a boost from the Republican campaign for president, which he contends is "driving people back to us."
"I tell people I never feel quite as smug about being a Democrat as when I watch the Republicans debate," he said.