Democratic primary results rattle foundation of Mike Miller's presidency of Maryland Senate

Of all the winners in the Maryland Democratic primaries on Tuesday, no one lost more than Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The Senate president decisively beat a challenger in his own district. But the loss of allies in other races struck at the very foundation of his 32-year reign over the upper chamber.


Incumbent Senate Democrats in four races fell or were poised to fall to progressive challengers. They include three of Miller’s most valued allies: Sens. Joan Carter Conway and Nathaniel McFadden of Baltimore and Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton of Charles County. All three would be replaced by senators with no prior loyalties to Miller.

Senate Minority Leader J. B. Jennings described the losses as “the midnight massacre.”


“The Senate has shifted left,” the Baltimore County Republican said. “It was an earthquake of a shift left.”

With at least five Democratic seats vulnerable to Republican challengers in the November election, Miller could be looking at a very different Senate when he ascends the podium next January — farther to the right overall, but tilting more to the left in his own caucus.

That assumes he takes the podium at all.

The results leave him more vulnerable to an internal challenge to his presidency than at any time since Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell attempted a coup with the aid of Republicans in 2000.


“For the longest time, you would never put ‘Miller’ and ‘vulnerable’ together in the same sentence,” St. Mary’s College political scientist Todd Eberly said. “Now you can do it and it doesn’t sound preposterous.”

Ben Jealous won the Democratic primary for Maryland governor with an overwhelming margin in the Baltimore region and a strong performance in the Washington suburbs where his chief rival, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, was expected to perform well. 

That doesn’t mean Eberly — or anyone else — believes it’s likely that the wily Miller will be dethroned. For that to happen, a majority of his caucus would have to coalesce around a challenger.

And even then, Eberly noted, Miller would have the option of cutting a deal with the Republicans, as Bromwell tried to do. But that would carry risks, too.

“If that happened it would further drive a wedge between Miller and the progressive voices,” Eberly said.

Miller, who represents Prince George’s and Calvert counties, declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.

Democrats hold 33 of the 47 seats in the Senate. Republicans have set a goal of picking up five seats in November — a total that would let them sustain Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes and mount successful filibusters.

Jennings, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said Miller might be limited in how far left he can move to appease the increased number of progressives in his Democratic caucus.

“He could have 19 Republicans sitting on his right flank he has to work with, so he can’t go too far left,” he said.

Miller will have many tools at his disposal as he adjusts to a caucus that lost 66 years of General Assembly experience in the primaries.

As Senate president, he appoints members to prestigious and powerful positions. If the apparent defeats of Conway and Middleton stand, Miller will have vacancies in three of four standing committee chairmanships — the dukedoms of Annapolis. He’ll need a new president pro tempore to replace McFadden.

As the longest-serving head of a state legislative chamber in U.S. history, Miller has a demonstrated ability to convert primary winners he opposed into allies with a warm welcome to the Senate and a choice committee assignment.

“He’s got 30 years of experience as a president,” Jennings said.

All of the 188 seats in the Maryland General Assembly — 47 in the Senate, 141 in the House of Delegates — were on the ballot Tuesday, forcing many veteran incumbents in the Baltimore region and elsewhere to face possible ouster as voters decided whether to make sweeping changes in Annapolis. 

The only Senate committee chairman expected to return is Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the head of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The Baltimore County Democrat said he was surprised by the loss of so many incumbents.

“It’s definitely going to be a changed environment,” Zirkin said.

The change will not be positive for Baltimore, Conway warned. While she has not conceded her race, she’s more than 500 votes behind in her effort to keep the front-row seat she occupies as chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

She warned the loss of senior senators would have a “devastating” impact because their replacements won’t be involved when deals are cut.

“They will not sit in that front seat,” she said. “They will not be there in the room.

While Miller was having a terrible Tuesday, Eberly said, House Speaker Michael E. Busch was doing well. Busch posted impressive numbers in his own Annapolis district, lost few high-ranking Democratic members to primary challengers and helped protect some valued freshmen.

The one notable loss in his caucus was Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The 81-year-old Prince George’s County Democrat finished third in a two-member district.

Vallario’s defeat is hardly a disaster for Busch, who has several times in recent years had to mediate disputes between the autocratic chairman and progressives on his committee.

“I feel bad for Joe, but Joe had a great career,” Busch said. “Obviously we’ll have a different dynamic on Judiciary.”

Busch said he expects significant changes in the next four-year term, particularly in the Senate.

“We had a couple good people from the House go over there and they’ll hit the ground running,” he said.