Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Conventional Wisdom the Loser in Local Elections

Current County Executive Allan Kittleman and new County Executive
Calvin Ball         Photo: Baltimore Post Examiner

On a chilly Election Day evening, hundreds of Howard County Democratic partisans packed Kahler Hall in Columbia, Md. to do what folks had hoped to do: celebrate victories. National and local returns were projected on screens via cable news programming and a laptop while people huddled around the screens, sat at round tables engaged in high-spirited political conversations, hitting the buffet line, mingling about, or taking selfies as polls were closing in much of the East.  #hocopolitics

The traditional venue for such occasions has been a horror show for Democrats in 2014 and 2016.  This night would be different, many of the Dem supporters hoped and believed.  And they were right.

When the Howard County numbers eventually rolled in with only a handful of precincts remaining on this November 6 night, several deafening roars exploded as it appeared that Dr. Calvin Ball, a three-term member of the County Council, was poised to upset incumbent Allan H. Kittleman as County Executive. Prosecutor Rich Gibson followed with a lusty defeat of Republican Kim Oldham as the new State’s Attorney, and most of the other offices down the ballot followed suit.  The much ballyhooed Blue Wave was indeed washing throughout Howard County.

Click here for all the election results in Maryland.

The biggest loser in these local elections was conventional wisdom, which took a back seat to other dynamics that were in play. Below are examples of how conventional wisdom was shattered:

The top of ticket pulls up lower candidates. Governor Larry Hogan handily defeated his Democratic challenger Ben Jealous by a 56% to 43% margin.  Gov. Hogan, the odds-on favorite and a leader in just about every poll, was supposed to help Republican candidates down the ballot. 

It did not work in Howard County. Mr. Hogan garnered 56.7% to Mr. Jealous’ 42.2% (similar to the overall state vote) yet the Democrat Dr. Ball defeated the Republican Mr. Kittleman 52.4% to 47.5%, and most other Dems in the county won as well.

Results were similar in other central Maryland counties. In Baltimore County, Gov. Hogan handily defeated Mr. Jealous by a 61.7% - 37.3% count in that jurisdiction, but the Democrat John Olszewski, Jr. defeated Republican Al Redmer, Jr. by a 57.5% to 42.4% margin.  In Anne Arundel, the divergence was even greater.  While Gov. Hogan walloped Mr. Jealous 69.1% to 29.8%, Democrat Steuart Pittman outlasted Republican Steve Schuh 52% to 47.9%.

In all three jurisdictions, incumbent County Executive Republicans succumbed to Democratic challengers despite the Governor’s margin of victory.  Clearly, there were no coattails.

Howard Co.
Howard Co.
State
Kittleman     47.5
Hogan      56.7
56.1
Ball              52.4
Jealous     42.2 
42.8

Baltimore Co.
Baltimore Co.
State
 Redmer      42.4
Hogan      61.7
56.1
Olszewski   57.5        
Jealous     37.3 
42.8

Anne Arundel
Anne Arundel
State
Schuh          47.9
Hogan     69.1 
56.1
Pittman        52.0        
Jealous    29.8  
42.8

A favored candidate shouldn’t start off campaign attacking opponent.  One of the criticisms of frontrunner Anthony Brown’s ill-fated 2014 gubernatorial bid was that he began his campaign by immediately hitting the relatively unknown Larry Hogan with negative ads thus elevating his profile. Shrugging off that philosophy, in 2018, the Republican Governors Association launched vicious attack ads against Mr. Jealous painting him as “too extreme for Maryland” and one who is guaranteed to raise taxes to fund his programs. Mr. Jealous was slow to respond and never recovered.

It should be noted that although Mr. Kittleman had been favored to be re-elected in Howard County, he did not engage in negative attack ads, and Dr. Ball did not either, resulting in an unusual but refreshing contest.

Endorsements help candidates. Republican candidates throughout the state, sensing an easy victory for Gov. Hogan, did not hesitate to include “Hogan Endorsed” as part of their materials, advertising and signage. By and large, it did not work.  Endorsements are overrated and popularity is not transferable when other more important factors are in play.

Incumbency has an advantage.  The benefits of incumbency are clear. The candidate has name recognition. He or she probably has a residual war chest from the previous campaign to spend in the current campaign, which takes some pressure off of fundraising. The candidate has a record of accomplishments to run on. And the higher level of visibility based on the time in office serves as an additional advantage.

In Howard County, however, Republican incumbents except those whose districts spilled into more conservative terrain in Carroll County lost. Nonetheless, all Howard County Democratic incumbents won.

Calvin Ball was not predicted to win.  Mr. Kittleman had all the benefits of incumbency (see above) and money plus he enjoyed relatively high job approval and personal popularity. Moreover, a Mason Dixon poll  released merely six weeks before the election indicated Mr. Kittleman should glide to victory as he enjoyed a 16% lead. For Dr. Ball’s part, an internal poll  had forecast a much tighter race.

Dr. Ball benefitted from his own positive personal attributes, a strong ground game and solid messaging including his vision for the county that hit the target especially in the weeks leading up to the election. However, the “Trump effect” played a significant role, not only in the County Executive race but also with others down ballot.

Governor Hogan enjoyed high job approval across the board and pulled in a good chunk Democratic and independent votes. But after that, Democrats were driven to turn out to vote Democratic in part, as a protest to Trumpism and the Republican Party that has enabled it.

Mr. Kittleman, hardly a Trumpster, was caught between a rock and a hard place. With less than a third of the county’s active voters identifying as Republican, Mr. Kittleman needed to pull in Democratic and independent support. His conundrum was that if he railed against President Trump, he would alienate those GOP voters who are ardent Trump supporters.  If he was to be silent concerning the president (he largely was), then Democrats could not see him as a viable antidote to Trump’s policies and bigotry.

In addition, Republican activists charged Mr. Kittleman with trying too hard to get Democrats on board and not paying enough attention to Republican concerns.

Other factors hurt the incumbent as well including the controversial mulch legislation, his opposition to Howard being a sanctuary county and the rebuilding plans following the second Ellicott City flood in three years.

The intensity of enthusiasm benefitted Dr. Ball; the lack of same hurt Mr. Kittleman. The lopsided early voting margin for Democrats conveyed excitement and proved too steep of a hill for Mr. Kittleman to climb. Hoping to eradicate the Dem lead, Mr. Kittleman only managed 142 more votes than Dr. Ball on Election Day.

The County Executive race ended with sportsmanship and civility.
The defeated candidate does not concede in person.  
Finally, as the crowd at Kahler Hall continued to cheer, hug and high-five one another, news swept among the masses remaining in the ballroom that Calvin Ball’s opponent, Allan Kittleman, was in the lobby to personally concede the election and congratulate the victor. In a stunning and classy move, Mr. Kittleman, his wife and three children, clad in their campaign yellow t-shirts, entered the building with the candidates embracing and raising their locked arms as if they both won.

They did. But conventional wisdom lost.

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