Montgomery County Executive Race Too Close To Call Between Elrich, Blair

Montgomery County Executive Race Too Close To Call Between Elrich, Blair

Elrich holds slim lead after the primary election, but thousands of absentee ballots need to be counted

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Marc Elrich, left, discusses the election returns with his campaign manager Ben Spielberg late Tuesday night

Andrew Metcalf

Updated 12:05 p.m., Wednesday – The race for the Democratic nomination for Montgomery County executive remains too close to call.

As of midday Wednesday, County Council member Marc Elrich led businessman David Blair by less than 500 votes with all of the county’s primary election day precincts reporting. Elrich had 34,729 votes to Blair’s 34,277.

The race is now expected to come down to the absentee and provisional ballot count. Montgomery County Board of Elections spokeswoman Margie Roher said Tuesday night the board sent out about 14,900 absentee ballots and 7,500 have been returned. As of June 25, the state Board of Elections reported about 11,600 of the county’s absentee ballots were sent to Democrats and about 5,000 of that party’s absentee ballots had been returned. Provisional ballots, which are scheduled to be counted July 5, could also impact the race. Roher said Wednesday there were 3,614 provisional ballots cast during the primary.

A party-like atmosphere developed in the later hours at Elrich’s election night gathering at The Barking Dog in Bethesda, where more than 100 supporters gathered to watch the returns come in. Throughout the night, Elrich and Blair traded the lead, but as Elrich continued to hold a slim lead late into the night, the music was turned up and people started dancing.

“I feel pretty good about this, it’s a moral victory—over amazing odds,” Elrich said late Tuesday about his election-night lead. “You see people who really care about Montgomery County and their future here. For me this is very cool, this is warm and fuzzy.”

He said being ahead would help him get to sleep more easily early Wednesday.

David Blair addresses his primary election night party in Rockville. Credit: Leigh McDonald

Blair, the former CEO of the pharmacy benefits company Catalyst Health Solutions, wrapped up his campaign party at his Badlands playspace in Rockville with a speech around 10:40 p.m., after he lost the lead to Elrich.

“Eight months ago we were an unknown and a huge underdog and now we’re in a fight for our lives in a neck-and-neck race,” Blair said. “We don’t know the outcome yet, but we have so much to celebrate.”

He said he and his supporters would celebrate their friendships and diversity and the campaign’s integrity.

“When our competitors went negative, we didn’t follow,” Blair said. “We held our heads up high. We will all sleep well knowing we ran an incredibly positive campaign focused on the issues that matter most.”

If the results hold, former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow will finish third, District 1 County Council member Roger Berliner will finish fourth, at-large council member George Leventhal will be in fifth place and state Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda) in sixth.

Full results after election day via Montgomery County Board of Elections website.

The candidates faced a grueling primary schedule over the past six months, sometimes attending multiple evening forums each week that brought them in front of dozens of different community and political organizations.

Blair garnered the endorsement of The Washington Post, which the businessman promoted heavily in the final two months of the campaign. Elrich, meanwhile, racked up several prominent union endorsements including the backing of the county teachers’ union as well as unions representing  government employees, police and firefighters. He also earned the support of residents who have opposed significant new developments in places such as Westbard and downtown Bethesda.

The winner will replace outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett, who must step down in December due to term limits, but had planned to retire anyway after serving three terms.

In 2016, county residents voted overwhelmingly to approve term limits, which limits council members and the county executive to three consecutive terms. The vote forced Elrich, Leventhal and Berliner from running for re-election to their council seats. And it was widely seen as a reaction from the voters to the council’s unanimous decision to increase property and recordation tax rates in 2016. Leggett refrained from endorsing any of the Democrats in the county executive race and on Tuesday told a reporter all six candidates are strong, but not very different from one another.

Krasnow, Blair and Frick regularly referred to the term-limits vote during candidate forums and events to describe why they didn’t believe the council members should be promoted to higher office.

However, the race ultimately came down to whether voters wanted the progressive vision espoused by Elrich or the more moderate plans to expand economic development pitched by Blair. While Elrich said he would pursue policies to eliminate the student achievement gap and the poverty gap between residents in the county, Blair pitched more concrete objectives such as making Ride On buses free to encourage bus ridership and eliminating the county’s five-cent bag tax, which he believes hasn’t cut down on plastic bag usage. Both candidates said they wanted to make sure the county does a better job of upgrading infrastructure—roads, schools and parks—when new developments are built.

The race also featured for the first time public campaign financing for candidates. Elrich, Leventhal and Krasnow all opted to use the new system that required candidates to raise contributions of $150 or less and refuse donations from PACs, corporations or party committees. The donations they received were matched with multiples of county funds.

Although each publicly financed candidate received more than $360,000 in public campaign funds—with Elrich topping the field with more than $600,000 in matching funds, they were all vastly outspent by Blair.

Blair, whose estimated net worth is more than $75 million, contributed nearly $3 million of his money to his campaign—more than double the amount raised by any other candidate in the field. He used the funds to pay for a sizable staff and saturate mailboxes and TV airwaves with mailers and ads.

Frick and Berliner, two experienced politicians who each hoped to win the support of the county’s business community, were largely drowned out by Blair’s campaign. Although Berliner received significant support initially from county developers, many prominent builders began giving to Blair’s campaign in the final months. In the last month of the campaign, Berliner went on the attack in an ad that compared Blair to President Donald Trump, which some voters described as unfair.

Frick tried to focus on the county’s liquor monopoly, which he would like to end, but the issue wasn’t able to sap attention from the countywide focus during the campaign on the perception that the local economy is struggling.

Krasnow attempted to woo female voters as the only woman in the race as well as with her experience as a former mayor and deputy planning department director, but her campaign never quite took off. She was the last candidate to enter the race—in December—a month after Blair launched his campaign.

Leventhal, an experienced politician who has served as an at-large County Council member since 2002, was the first to formally enter the race last June. He promoted his work on helping the homeless and efforts to expand health care and his knowledge of county government. He was widely seen as the hardest-working candidate, spending late nights shaking voters’ hands at community meetings and events. But he struggled to define a lane for his campaign that was different from Elrich.

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