Monday, April 7, 2014

Clash of the Titans

Every so often, it is important to get the adrenaline riled.  Otherwise, the tedium sets in.  Once that happens, sloth and melancholia tend to lurk about, shambling listlessly through dimly lit alleyways. No sense inviting them over.  

For the politically-attuned, General Election Day offers the prospect of serious action, excitement of the first order.  In 2014 anno Domini, in our corner of the known universe, the marquee countywide general election matchup will be County Council member Courtney Watson (D) vs. State Senator Allan Kittleman (R) in the race to succeed the outgoing County Executive, Ken Ulman.   

This is our Ali – Frazier.

Even with historical trends favoring the hypothesis that 2014 will be a decent Republican year, Howard County Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a 3 to 2 margin (93,354 registered Ds as compared to 56,285 registered Rs).

The Watson campaign, adopting the structures proposed in Professor Stephen Skowronek’s seminal work, The Politics Presidents Make, is practicing the politics of Articulation.  She is assuming that the current County Executive’s regime is resilient, and will be viewed as such through November.  In which case, affiliating with the current Administration makes the most sense.  Her campaign’s messaging reflects a theme of continuity (“continuing the progress in Howard County”).  Watson’s promise is that she will use her expertise to move the County forward, charting her own course yet following a path not too dissimilar from the one chosen by Ulman.

Her challenge is establishing her own brand in the minds of voters.  At the presidential level, sometimes those who adopt the politics of articulation (“orthodox-innovators” to use Skowronek’s descriptor) fare quite well (Theodore Roosevelt) while others have more difficulty adapting to changing circumstances (George H.W. Bush).  The good news for Watson is that she is a known entity with her own record of accomplishments and that, as of this writing, Howard County voters are less likely to be disenchanted with the state of the county as compared to the state of the state, or the state of the nation. 

Meanwhile, the Kittleman campaign is banking on the politics of Pre-emption.  They recognize that the party affiliation numbers are not in their favor and are downplaying the Republican label, at least outside of Western HoCo.  Their theme is that Kittleman is a “proven Independent leader.” He is promoting his support for marriage equality and reminding voters about his family’s long-standing commitment to civil rights.  In short, he is not running as a conservative Republican.  He has little choice. His electoral predicament is not dissimilar from the one facing Nixon in '68, or Clinton in '92...both of whom were candidates belonging to the non-dominant order of their time.  

The Kittleman strategy is to work for a heavy Republican turnout in County Council District Five and hope for a depressed Democratic turnout countywide.   Unfortunately for his campaign, the one true swing district in the County – Council District One – is held by one Courtney Watson, who has represented Eastern Howard County on the Council since 2006.   If Kittleman can’t win in the First, he is, in all probability, doomed. 

So who will win?  The smart money is on Courtney Watson.   If Democratic turnout is 60% or higher, Watson should win.  60,000 votes should be sufficient for victory this time around, and Ulman garnered 66,121 four years ago in his rout of Trent Kittleman…in what was, nationally, a Republican election cycle.  Sixty percent of 93,354 registered Democrats works out to 56,012 votes…that means that Watson would only need 4,000 votes among Republicans, unaffiliated and “other” voters to reach the 60,000 figure.  Even assuming a two percent under-vote for that particular office, 60% Democratic turnout overall should elect Watson as our next County Executive.

With 60% Democratic turnout, Kittleman will have a tough time cobbling together a coalition that would approach 50% plus one.  His hope rests in a Democratic turnout at or below 50%.  If that occurs, and if Republicans follow the party-line and turn out in sufficient numbers (65%+ GOP turnout; 90% - 10% for the Senator) and if Independents account for approximately 25% of the electorate and if they break 8 – 5 for Kittleman, and if he pulls a slightly higher percentage of Democratic voters into his column (15%) than Watson does among Republicans (10%), then yes, Kittleman could emerge with between 50.1% and 51.5%, with 52% most likely being his hard ceiling.

Notice the number of “ifs” in that paragraph?

Watson’s ceiling is closer to 60%.... and consists of far fewer ifs.  She needs to energize the base.  Turning to elements beyond the direct control of her campaign, it would be helpful to her efforts if the best Democratic candidates emerged victorious in the swing districts in the June primary elections…nominees who can motivate Democrats to cast their ballots in the General Election while also appealing to Independent voters.  Specifically, I am thinking about Howard County Council District One as well as the State House of Delegates District 9B.  I have some thoughts as to the ideal Democratic nominees for both of those races.  I will share them in a later post.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.


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