Four years ago, Maryland held its primary concurrently with the District of Columbia and Virginia in the so-called “Potomac primaries.” Then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., swept all three contests, extending his delegate lead over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and bringing a jolt of recognition to many watchers that the insurgent Midwesterner would, in fact, be the Democratic nominee.
Turnout in Maryland was high — record-breaking, in fact. In Maryland’s black-majority 4th congressional district, progressive Donna Edwards ousted then-Rep. Al Wynn in the Democratic primary. On the Republican side, then-Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, the moderate longtime congressman for Maryland’s 1st congressional district, was defeated by conservative Andy Harris.
Edwards would go on to serve in Congress. Harris would fall short in the general election, only to win election on his second try, in 2010.
Four years ago, Maryland politics was wild and wonderful, and it seemed just about everyone was fired up and excited to make history with their votes.
Fast-forward to today. Record low turnout was reported at many polling sites. An election judge at the University of Maryland’s polling place in Stamp Student Union inhaled in dismay at the number of votes that had been cast as of shortly after 1 p.m., at the tail end of the usually bustling lunch period: a whopping 17.
What happened? Why, at the same time turnout boomed in distant Wisconsin, did Marylanders take a look at the gorgeous, sunny weather outside, take a look at the pile of campaign literature on their counter and the cache of robocalls on their answering machines, and utter a collective “meh?”
We need hardly look beyond the Senate race, where the campaign of state Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, distributed fliers a week before the primary breaking down United States senators by classifications of White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Jewish.
Muse, who is black, has run his entire campaign against popular Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who is both white and Jewish (though only included in the count of the latter on Muse’s flier), on the basis of race politics. Rather than highlighting policy differences with the more progressive Cardin (the two differ on the DREAM Act and same-sex marriage rights, both of which Muse opposes), Muse has repeated his line about how the U.S. has no black senators and it is time for Maryland to “make history” by electing one.
Cardin, meanwhile, was perfectly content to ignore Muse altogether. He ran two TV ads, both positive spots narrated by a black child and an oysterman, respectively, in which the speakers called him “my friend, Ben,” and highlighted the senator’s work on behalf of poor children and the oyster industry.
Cardin won easily today. Muse’s divisive, disingenuous race-based appeals yielded little in support for him. To be honest, the state senator badly underperformed my own expectations; I expected him to scrape up close to 30 percent of the vote by at least turning out his base in Prince George’s and Charles counties, where turnout was reportedly heaviest (a relative term), but at the time of writing, it looks like he will be lucky to crack 15 percent.
We can look elsewhere, though. On the Democratic side, Obama is unopposed for re-nomination in Maryland. With his delegates from Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, he is officially the presumptive Democratic nominee as of tonight, as if it were ever in doubt. The lack of a contest at the top of the ticket in heavily Democratic Maryland doubtless impeded turnout.
But on the Republican side, despite a flurry of articles suggesting that “Maryland matters” in the presidential contest, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was never seriously at much risk of losing the Old Line State en route to his expected nomination.
Indeed, despite losing decisively to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum among voters under the age of 50, according to exit polls, Romney had Maryland called for him within seconds of polls closing by most major news outlets. Nearly half of Maryland Republicans who voted today were recorded by exit polls as making $100,000 or more annually, and unsurprisingly, that bloc of voters broke heavily for the wealthy ex-governor.
So, the presidential contests were foregone conclusions. That doesn’t tend to help turnout. But what of the congressional races, which saw two dramatic upsets of sitting House members in 2008?
The big prize this year is the redrawn 6th congressional district, where Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett looked to fight off a challenge from several ambitious Republicans, including state Sen. David Brinkley of New Market and state Del. Kathy Afzali of Middletown, and Democrats had a marquee battle between multimillionaire banker John Delaney of Potomac and state Sen. Rob Garagiola of Germantown, with Air Force reservist Dr. Milad Pooran of Jefferson acting as a potential spoiler.
From the get-go, both contested primaries were incredibly acrimonious.
Initial salvos from Bartlett’s challengers over the congressman’s friendliness with several House Democratic colleagues eventually mutated into 911 calls from Brinkley and his ex-wife recorded amidst the state senator’s messy divorce being released to media.
Garagiola seized upon Delaney’s campaign donation to Harris from 2010 on the Democratic side, only for Delaney to bite back by re-litigating the then-frontrunner’s botched state ethics forms from several years before that did not disclose income Garagiola had earned as a lobbyist. That was just the tip of the iceberg, with the two candidates clobbering each other for several bitter weeks.
Bartlett and Delaney will advance to a November meeting. But internal polls released to the public in the closing days of the campaign showed a massive bloc of undecided voters on both sides, and if the primary’s low turnout is any indication, many of those undecided voters simply stayed home rather than vote for any of the field.
Surely Bartlett and Delaney will be satisfied with their victories. But in order to claw their way to the top, they had to carpet-bomb their opposition, and in the process, a lot of Maryland residents were turned off from the democratic process altogether. They should be embarrassed that in order to win, they had to destroy their opponents by any means necessary — and Afzali, Brinkley and Garagiola should be embarrassed that they tried to win the same way.