Opinion: Who Will Be the Next County Executive?
Several questions come into play when considering who will emerge victorious in Tuesday’s general election.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not reflect those of Bethesda Beat staff.
This is THE question on the minds of MoCo’s entire political community: Who will succeed Ike Leggett as Montgomery County executive?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: It won’t be Republican Robin Ficker. He is too unpopular for his heckling, self-promoting and general clownishness among long-time residents who vote disproportionately in county elections. That unpopularity extends to Republicans, who voted against him in five of six contested GOP primaries in which Ficker was a candidate since 1994. That shows that when they have a non-Democratic alternative, most Republicans do not vote for Ficker and they have one in this general election in Nancy Floreen. That said, the degree to which Ficker attracts any Republican (and other) votes will impact Floreen’s ability to win.
That leaves Marc Elrich, the Democrat, and Floreen, the (for now) ex-Democrat. The two have a long history of running in County Council At-Large Democratic primaries. The table below shows their Election Day performance in the 2014 primary by local area, the last time they ran in the same race.
There are no surprises here. Elrich does best in the Democratic Crescent—the areas stretching from Takoma Park to Bethesda inside and near the Beltway. This region is crucial in MoCo Democratic primaries because of its high turnout and legions of regular blue voters. It sent Jamie Raskin to Congress two years ago. In the 2018 county executive primary, Elrich ran up election day margins of 1,181 votes in downtown Silver Spring and 1,037 votes in Takoma Park, which was enough to overcome David Blair’s smaller wins in Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Potomac and most of the upcounty. Floreen’s strength is in the upcounty. That area gets out-voted by the Crescent in Democratic primaries, but it is slightly stronger in general elections because it contains more Republicans and independents. Floreen needs her success among upcounty Democrats to spread to other upcounty voters to have a shot.
Now let’s look at voting by party in MoCo gubernatorial general elections.
More than 60 percent of MoCo gubernatorial general election voters are Democrats. This is Elrich’s biggest advantage as the Democratic nominee. His path to victory is simple: Carry all the Democrats and win. Floreen’s path is more complicated.
Here’s one scenario in which Floreen can win: Get all votes from independents, half the votes of Republicans and 28 percent of the Democrats. If party distribution of voting stays with the percentages of 2014, Floreen could beat Elrich 45 percent to 44 percent, with Ficker getting 11 percent.
There are lots and LOTS of questions affecting this or any other Floreen win scenario. Here are a few of them:
1. How will Floreen get a third or so of Democrats to reject their own nominee? She, along with The Washington Post editorial page and the County Above Party PAC, has been vigorously attacking Elrich on a host of issues, but will it stick? Floreen has to show that Elrich is somehow not aligned with Democratic values. That’s really hard to do when almost every Democratic-aligned interest group—progressives, unions, environmentalists and more—is supporting Elrich.
2. What happens if Democrats account for a larger percentage of the vote than in 2014? Floreen would have to get an even bigger share of their vote than the above scenario contemplates to win.
3. The table below shows that, on average, 73 percent more Democrats vote in MoCo gubernatorial general elections than in primaries. If that percentage holds, there will be nearly 100,000 Democratic voters this November who did not vote in June. (It could be a lot higher than that.) These are folks who probably know little or nothing about Elrich or Floreen. It requires a ton of TV, mail, social media, email and field work to educate them, especially on why their own party’s nominee doesn’t deserve their vote—and Floreen has no financial advantage over Elrich.
4. Will Republicans and independents support a candidate who voted for four big tax hikes in the last decade? Floreen doesn’t want to talk about that while Ficker brings it up at every opportunity. Taxes are something that Gov. Larry Hogan is using against his Democratic rival, Ben Jealous, but Floreen can’t use that issue against Elrich. Another complicating factor for Republicans and independents is that Floreen has said that she will re-register as a Democrat after the election.
5. Will Floreen’s gender make a difference? Quite a few Democratic female activists are unhappy that men won eight of the nine County Council spots in the primary. And roughly sixty 60 percent of Democrats are women. However, there are a few things to recognize. First, the ratio of women to men in the general electorate is much closer than in the primary. Second, the third-place finishes of county executive candidate Rose Krasnow and 2016 congressional candidate Kathleen Matthews as well as the failure of women to win any primary races for council at-large seats calls into question whether being a female candidate adds value even in Democratic primaries. And third, will Democratic women who want to elect more women vote for a woman who left the Democratic Party?
6. How much will The Washington Post’s thundering endorsements of Floreen help her? That’s hard to answer. There is no doubt that the Post is influential in Democratic primaries, especially in the wealthier areas in the southwestern part of the county. (Potomac residents voted for every Post-endorsed county executive and council candidate in this year’s primary. Bethesda residents voted for all of them except Marilyn Balcombe.) But is the Post equally respected by Republican and independent voters, especially those who are skeptical of the mainstream media? The Post’s endorsement has not been tested in a recent competitive MoCo general election because we have not had any of those in more than a decade. So we shall see.
7. Lastly, there is history. MoCo voters have not rejected a Democratic county executive nominee since Republican County Executive James Gleason defeated Democratic County Council member Idamae Garrott for re-election in 1974.
Anything can happen; just look at what occurred two years ago. But given all of the above, Marc Elrich looks to have the edge going into Election Day.
Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.