The drinks had barely stopped flowing at Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s re-election celebration Tuesday when the speculation about the future of Maryland’s two major political parties began.
Democrats in Prince George’s County were buzzing about their newly elected County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, 47, a top prosecutor and rising star seen as so formidable her Republican opponent dropped out and endorsed her as the best person to lead the county.
Baltimore County, long a seesaw jurisdiction, had chosen Democrat Johnny Olszewski Jr., 36, a Dundalk native with progressive views who also appeals to centrists.
And Howard County had ousted its moderate Republican executive in favor of Calvin Ball, 43, who had proven he could overcome polling and fundraising deficits to win a swing jurisdiction whose mood often reflects the state’s.
Tuesday’s election results mean that in 2019 Democrats will hold the top job in seven of Maryland’s eight largest jurisdictions, seven of eight congressional seats, and super-majorities in both the state senate and the House of Delegates. Both U.S. senators, the Maryland attorney general and state comptroller are all Democrats, too.
“We fell short in the governor’s race but otherwise it was a blue tsunami in Maryland,” says Kathleen Matthews, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party. “I think we have a constellation of rising stars. The election is ushering in a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party.”
Meanwhile, Republicans — still riding high from Hogan’s historic win over Democrat Ben Jealous — looked around the state to see their bench had been decimated.
Ball had bested Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a moderate Republican seen by many as best positioned to run for governor in 2022 after Hogan’s term ends. Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, seen as another likely successor to Hogan, lost his seat to Steuart Pittman, a businessman and farmer.
Beyond Hogan, the GOP’s top elected Republicans are now Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, a respected but wonkish administrator who many believe would be reluctant to run for governor; U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who analysts believe is too right-wing to win statewide; and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a well-regarded candidate but not from one of the state’s most populous counties.
“Is there a Republican bench now?” asks Todd Eberly, a political scientist from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “The Democratic bench just got very crowded. The Democrats now have a wealth of future candidates.”
Along with Alsobrooks, Olszewski, Ball and Pittman, Democrat Jan Gardner won a second term as executive in purple Frederick County on Tuesday and Democrat Marc Elrich won the race for Montgomery County executive. Add in Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, and the Democrats now lead seven of Maryland’s eight largest jurisdictions — seats often seen as launching pads for statewide office. Harford County’s Glassman is the Republican exception.
Many Democrats are talking about Alsobrooks, the county’s state’s attorney who soundly defeated former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards and state Sen. C. Anthony Muse in her run for county executive.
“Angela Alsobrooks has to be No. 1 on anybody’s list,” says Tim Maloney, a former Prince George’s County legislator and close observer of state politics. “She’s done a great job running the state’s attorney’s office. She’s first-rate. She’s high integrity. She’s obviously one of the front-runners, but there’s a lot she wants to do in Prince George’s. I’m sure her first and only focus is to be a successful county executive.”
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said she believes Olszewski’s victory in Baltimore County represents a way forward for Maryland’s majority party. Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by 2 to 1.
“It’s a great idea for Democrats to start thinking about their future being somebody born and raised in Dundalk,” Kromer said. “He can speak the language of progressives but he does it with a pragmatic approach that also appeals to moderates. He has working-class roots. He’s not lying when he says he grew up in the shadow of a steel mill.”
Olszewski has been asked about his future ambitions in interviews since his victory on Tuesday, but he has brushed them aside, saying he’s focused only on getting ready to take over county government.
In a statement, Maryland Republican Party Chairman Dirk Haire celebrated Hogan’s win but blamed President Donald Trump for the party’s down-ballot losses.
“In the large suburban counties in the Baltimore area, independents appear to have voted in large numbers against every Republican on the ballot except for Governor Hogan as a statement against President Trump,” Haire said. “This dynamic proved problematic and appears to have cost us a couple of incumbent County Executives (Anne Arundel and Howard) and prevented us from making several legislative and county council gains that we thought were achievable.”
Nevertheless, Haire predicted, the GOP could resurge in 2022 if the Democrats in charge of the large jurisdictions increase taxes.
“After the next four years of higher property taxes and local income taxes in our major counties like Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Frederick, the voters in those counties will once again vote Republican in much larger numbers than occurred in 2018,” he predicted.
In addition to Glassman, Republicans see their top prospects as members of the General Assembly, such as Sen. J.B. Jennings of Harford County, Sen. Michael Hough of Frederick County, Sen. Justin Ready of Carroll County and Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, or coming out of the Hogan administration, such as labor secretary Kelly Schulz.
They also point to Olszewski’s resurgence after losing a state Senate race as evidence that Kittleman, Schuh or even the party’s attorney general candidate Craig Wolf could stage a comeback. A business leader could also jump into the race.
“We took a lot of hits on the down-ballot. A lot of that was attributed directly to President Trump,” said Brian Griffiths, the editor of Red Maryland, a conservative website. “But I’m pretty confident we’re going to have a strong candidate in 2022.”
Democrats, too, aren’t counting out those on their side who could make a comeback, such as former Attorney General Doug Gansler, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman or Krish Vignarajah, a former policy adviser to Michelle Obama.
Vignarajah, who got nearly 50,000 votes in her first try at elective office in the Democratic primary for governor, says Democrats need to re-evaluate their approach to trying to retake the governor’s mansion. After losing to Jealous in June, she campaigned for him — only to watch Hogan emerge victorious.
“We ran a Bernie Sanders candidate in a Barack Obama state,” Vignarajah said. She recently joined the board of Emerge Maryland, an organization that seeks to put more women into office. “Democrats have lost three out of the last five gubernatorial campaigns,” she noted, including the 2002 victory by Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr. “I’m going to do whatever we can to take back the governor’s office.”
Eberly said the county executives are best positioned to make a run for statewide office if they do a good job and choose to do so.
“There’s no one who is going to have the media coverage or name identification that would come from being the Prince George’s County or Baltimore County or Howard County executive,” he said.
“Maryland has the largest number of African-Americans outside of the deep south and yet has never elected an African-American governor,” Eberly added. “That’s a ceiling Democrats desperately want to shatter.”