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‘County over party’: Questions about Frederick County’s political future remain after election

FREDERICK — Brandon Frazier has witnessed a lot of growth since he first moved into a house near Lake Linganore nearly two decades ago.

Frazier, a former president of the Lake Linganore Association’s Board of Directors, has seen thousands of homes added, making his community roughly three times as large as when he moved in.

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The registered Republican has tried to work in a nonpartisan manner with other Republicans, Democrats and other political affiliations during his time in the community, but added the county could be beginning to trend blue, noting recent migration from Montgomery County and other parts of the region.

That said, elections in the near-term should still be competitive, Frazier said. Former president Donald Trump, a Republican, has helped register voters in both major parties the last four years, and the county will be “solidly purple” for at least the next few election cycles, he said.

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“I think people who are pragmatic and take on the issues of the county, the issues that matter to the county, are going to be successful — county over party, if you will,” Frazier said. “Those who put the county over a party line are going to be more successful on both sides.”

Brandon Frazier, shown outside his Lake Linganore home in Maryland on Jan. 23, 2021. Frazier, a former president of the Lake Linganore Association’s Board of Directors, has seen thousands of homes added, making his community roughly three times as large as when he moved in. (Graham Cullen/The Frederick News-Post via AP)
Brandon Frazier, shown outside his Lake Linganore home in Maryland on Jan. 23, 2021. Frazier, a former president of the Lake Linganore Association’s Board of Directors, has seen thousands of homes added, making his community roughly three times as large as when he moved in. (Graham Cullen/The Frederick News-Post via AP) (Graham Cullen/AP)

Future elections will determine whether Frazier’s hypothesis is true, but President Joe Biden’s historic win last year — the first presidential win by a Democrat in Frederick County in over half a century — marks an interesting moment in the county’s political makeup.

Mark Jafari, president of the United Democrats of Frederick County, has lived in Urbana since June 2011.

While he describes the area’s political leanings back then as a slightly conservative “light pink,” the swing into the Democratic column has come more from people engaging in politics than the demographic mix changing.

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Jafari said he saw a lot of yard signs during the 2014 elections, then not as many in 2016 or 2018 before an uptick in signs during the 2020 race.

The Urbana area is definitely a more centrist part of the county, Jafari said, with lots of residents who work for the government or pharmaceutical industries — or hold other professional jobs — and who value stability.

Neighbors there don’t talk politics a lot, Jafari said. But he senses that the 2020 results were as much about who was running than anything, with a “general disgust” with Trump’s behavior in office.

This Jan. 25, 2021, photo shows Mark Jafari in front of a new section of housing in Urbana. Jafari, president of the United Democrats of Frederick County, has lived in Urbana since June 2011. While he describes the area’s political leanings back then as a slightly conservative “light pink,” the swing into the Democratic column has come more from people engaging in politics than the demographic mix changing. (Graham Cullen/The Frederick News-Post via AP)
This Jan. 25, 2021, photo shows Mark Jafari in front of a new section of housing in Urbana. Jafari, president of the United Democrats of Frederick County, has lived in Urbana since June 2011. While he describes the area’s political leanings back then as a slightly conservative “light pink,” the swing into the Democratic column has come more from people engaging in politics than the demographic mix changing. (Graham Cullen/The Frederick News-Post via AP) (Graham Cullen/AP)

While a longtime perception in the county is that Urbana is full of people who left Montgomery County for cheaper homes and lower taxes, Jafari said that’s no longer the case. When he first moved to Urbana, about half the people he met had come from Montgomery, but now new arrivals come from all over.

One resident who did move up the road from Montgomery County, however, is John Gretz.

Gretz, a Republican active in local politics, came to Urbana in 2009. He estimated there were roughly 2,200 homes in the area, but since then that number has grown to well over 3,000.

It’s difficult to say how the area will swing in future election cycles given the political makeup of Urbana, he said. There is a sizable unaffiliated voter population, and people will cross party lines, given local county issues including growth and public schools. Gretz said he voted for County Executive Jan Gardner, a Democrat, twice.

But he added the movement of Montgomery County residents and similar-minded people into Urbana is an indication of the area’s changing political landscape, given how heavily Democratic the former jurisdiction is.

“It seems Urbana is about as far north as some people are willing to commute to [Montgomery County and D.C.],” Gretz said.

Past, present leaders look ahead

Former County Commissioner and County Councilman Billy Shreve, a Republican, placed part of the blame for the 2020 election results on the Maryland Republican Party, which he said has focused more in recent years on raising money than organizing Republicans on the ground in counties such as Frederick.

Motivated volunteers are always more effective in campaigns than paid staff, said Shreve, a member of the county’s Republican Central Committee.

He expects to see Democratic registration continue to grow and more county Republicans to transform to fiscally conservative Democrats.

Steven Clark, chairman of the Republican Central Committee, is hopeful the party can win back many of the conservative voters who may have been turned off by Trump’s personality even as they liked his policies.

Many of Trump’s policies are popular with blue-collar workers in more rural parts of the county, who the party wants to target in the next few years — along with plenty of persuadable unaffiliated voters countywide, Clark said. Those policies include lower taxes, reducing business regulations, support for local law enforcement and tougher laws and enforcement on illegal immigration.

“I think we can definitely win them back,” Clark said.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hopeful that the trends of voter registration continue, said Deborah Carter, chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Central Committee.

Along with new residents and newly registered unaffiliated voters, the party is also targeting people who have left the Republican Party in recent years.

The more densely-populated, urban parts of the county can be counted on to vote Democratic, Carter said, but if you can lose the rural red areas by less than you lost them the last time, it can propel Democrats to victory.

Former and current elected officials are mixed on how 2020 might affect local, state and federal races and the county’s political landscape moving forward. County Executive Jan Gardner, a Democrat, thinks if local Democrats can encourage younger voters to turn out for their candidates, the county will continue turning blue.

“I think that it is a reflection of the politics of the day. I think it’s a reflection of where young people are going. I think it’s a reflection of where more diverse communities are going, and I think it’s just going to continue to be the trend in Frederick County,” Gardner said.

But County Councilman Kai Hagen, a Democrat who represents the entire county as an at-large member, thinks Trump was such a divisive figure that some Republicans were willing to vote for Biden but then cross back to vote for Republican candidates in congressional races.

Hagen thinks changing demographics will mean more Democrats will register countywide, but the number of Republican and unaffiliated voters will still make local races competitive in future election cycles.

“For a while it’s certainly going to be a place where nobody should take anything for granted,” Hagen said. “A primary is not an automatic ticket to winning any general elections at the countywide level.”

His colleague, Councilman Steve McKay, a Republican, was even more uncertain of the future political landscape, noting Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s two victories in the heavily Democratic state.

It’s hard to predict what lies ahead given the state of politics in 2020, McKay said. Future elections depend on the economy, the candidates on the ballot, how unaffiliated voters in the county vote and other factors that can’t presently be predicted, he said.

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“This cycle was all about the presidential race,” McKay said of 2020. “This country has been kind of galvanized in their separation, and there’s been very little tolerance for those who try to strike a more qualified middle ground. I feel that heat all the time … [the 2020 election] wasn’t even about Biden versus Trump. It was all about Trump.”

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Blaine Young, former president of the board of county commissioners and the Republican candidate who lost to Gardner in the county executive race in 2014, said countywide races will continue to be competitive given the large number of unaffiliated voters and those willing to cross party lines.

Unaffiliated voters are growing at an “astronomical rate” in the county, he said. In the last count before the 2020 election, there were 42,961 unaffiliated out of 186,356 registered voters, according to state election data.

Young also operates by the “80-20” rule — that 20 percent of voters in both major political parties could cross party lines, depending on who is running.

Blaine’s father, Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat, represents the city of Frederick, Ballenger Creek and parts of southern Frederick County in Annapolis. He agreed that county elections are far from shoo-ins for Democrats. The county is still small enough, population-wise, that hard work on the campaign trail pays off, he said.

“I can’t tell you how many people over the years, I’ve knocked on their door and they said, ‘Oh, nobody’s come to my door before. If you care that much, I’ll vote for you,’ without knowing what I stand for,” said Young, who was mayor of Frederick from 1974-90. “So a good candidate like that who works, they can win. That’s true of either party.”

Political scientists look ahead

Frederick County isn’t the only one reflecting on what the results of the 2020 election mean for its politics going forward, said Carin Robinson, a political scientist from Hood College in Frederick.

Like Shreve, Robinson points to the nature of the Republican Party in Maryland as part of the change.

Hogan didn’t endorse Trump, leading some Republicans in the county and state to vote for Biden, she said.

Meanwhile, turnout in some precincts jumped by 20 to 30 percent from past elections, largely through the use of mail-in voting.

“If the mail-in ballot is here to stay, I think that’s good news for the Democratic Party,” Robinson said.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, agreed with Robinson that future elections will prove whether Democrats will have considerable power countywide long-term.

One part of that is whether the Republican party and its voters decide to distance itself from Trump’s ideology or stick with it. The sizable number of Republicans in Congress who objected to the Electoral College certification signifies the latter for now, he added.

Tangentially, there’s history that shows county political power could move in the other direction, at least in federal races, Eberly said. The party out of power typically mobilizes and heads to the polls when they’ve lost the presidency, he added.

“Some of it is sort of a natural sort of release of the rubber band or swing back of the pendulum,” Eberly said. “The party that has the White House tends to be a little bit more content.”

There’s also the question of voter turnout and if voter participation in 2020 will carry through to future elections, said Brian Stipelman, dean of Liberal Arts at Frederick Community College and a political science professor.

A far greater portion of the county electorate activated last year voted for Biden over Trump — Democrats, unaffiliated voters and even some “Never Trump” Republicans, Stipelman said.

If that trend continues, especially in more populated areas of the county, it suggests Democrats will likely have success here in the near future—especially in countywide races, Stipelman said.

“While the rural vote was equally activated, there just might not be as many people in rural Frederick County as there are in urban and suburban Frederick County,” Stipelman said. “And if your suburban and urban voters are showing up in numbers, they’re going to swamp the increases in voter participation that’s coming from the rural areas.”

While signs point to Democratic gains in the county in the short term, the combination of Trump’s personality, the pandemic and greater access to mail-in voting in 2020 raise questions about whether those gains will be permanent.

Frederick County may have shifted decisively in 2020, but Robinson would like to see at least one more presidential election before she’s ready to say it’s turning blue for the long term.

“I think we need to pump the brakes a bit,” she said.

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