Strategy for Md. Democrats extends beyond 2016 races
Patrick H. Murray was a precocious 23-year-old and just a few years removed from finishing his undergraduate work at Swarthmore College when he became director of the Kansas Democratic Party in 2003.
“I joke that all five other Democrats in the state had jobs already,” he said.
Murray, now 36 and with more than a decade of experience with politics and policy, will work with a more favorable electorate in his new job as the Maryland Democratic Party’s executive director. The state’s registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
The state party put Murray in charge of its operations about two months after electing former Maryland House majority leader D. Bruce Poole as its chairman.
The task for Murray and Poole
is to energize and refocus the party after stunning defeats that cost it the governorship and seven seats in the legislature last year.
One challenge they will face is bridging the gap between liberal Democrats in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore, and those from the outer suburbs and rural areas, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made inroads with independents and moderates by promising greater fiscal restraint and economic growth.
“If we break down into small camps and get lost in the weeds, we’re going to suffer,” Poole said.
Poole, a Hagerstown-based lawyer, appears well-matched for his party’s current challenges. He won his first election to the House of Delegates in 1986, when he was 27, and in 1991 became the youngest House majority leader in state history.
During his time representing a Western Maryland district, Poole earned a reputation as a moderate Democrat and opposed plans for building taxpayer-subsidized stadiums for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins. He lost his bid for reelection in 1998 but has remained active in the public square by serving on state commissions.
“It’s good to have him because weget anew, energetic, fresh look, particularly with a guy from a suburban-rural perspective to head up the party,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said.
Poole credits much of his electoral success in Western Maryland to his ability to win support from “old-style labor Democrats” and moderate Republicans.
“That’s who I connected with, and that’s still who I am,” he said. “By philosophy, I’m a Bill Clinton Democrat.”
Murray, who lost a Maryland House of Delegates primary race last year, previously served as director of state affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Before that, he was deputy chief of staff to Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and an aide to Busch, giving him close ties to the existing party establishment. He also served as a political strategist on campaigns in Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Utah.
“He’s very aware of the urban opportunities and rural landscape,” Miller said.
Despite the Democratic losses in last year’s elections, Maryland’s outer suburbs are experiencing an ideological shift that benefits the party, much the same way Northern Virginia has become less conservative with a growing and diversifying population.
Murray sees an opportunity to pick-up votes in that environment.
“Wehave toraise the floor in the suburban and rural jurisdictions,” he said. “Every vote matters, whether it’s coming from a swing voter in Carroll County or a good base Democrat in Prince George’s County or Baltimore City.”
As part of its plan to unseat Republicans, the party is encouraging members to listen to voters and bring them around to the idea that Democrats can better serve their interests, for instance with more education spending to better prepare the future workforce and with new investments in projects that could support development and attract businesses.
“One of the reasons we talk as much as we do about great public schools is because that’s something that matters tremendously to voters in places like Howard County or Frederick County, where people might have moved in search of better schools,” Murray said. “As long as we’re connecting our agenda in Annapolis to people’s bread-and-butter, day-today, quality-of-life and economic concerns, we’re going to be okay.”
Murray said another key to success is matching candidates with the right jurisdictions. He recalls working with Dennis McKinney (D), a former Kansas House minority leader, who represented one of the state’s most rural districts and once insisted that Murray take a ride in his pickup truck to check out his cattle.
“A guy like that wouldn’t have been elected in Lawrence, Kansas, where the university is located,” Murray said.
For now, the party is focused on retaining control of the White House and the seat of U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has announced plans to retire after her current term ends. So far, the Democratic primary race pits Rep. Donna F. Edwards against Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
“Part of what we have to do is harness the energy that is going to be generated in a federal election in 2016 and use that energy to keep people engaged with the Democratic Party through the 2018 election,” Murray said.
For 2018, Democrats are betting that Hogan’s own policies will sink him, especially if his plans for spending cuts have a negative impact on schools and other government services.
“There will be, by virtue of Hogan having to govern, plenty of opportunities to talk about his record over the next 31/ years,”
2 Murray said.
In the meantime, the Democratic caucuses must avoid infighting between established members and a large crop of freshmen, many of whom are more progressive than their predecessors.
“A lot of these freshmen are tough to keep up with, but it’s that relentless passion for their work that got them here, and if they can keep that energy and harness that energy, it’s going to help them climb to leadership and potentially be long-term impact players,” Murray said.
As for Miller and Busch, who have run the Senate and House for 28 years and 12 years, respectively, the party has expressed little desire to replace them.
“I think in this moment, particularly with a divided government, their experience, their judgment and their toughness is important to everyone in their caucuses,” Murray said. “They’re the right guys in the right moment.”
Whether Democrats will feel the same about Murray and Poole in coming years remains to be seen.