2022 | Politics

Blair, Elrich in tight race for Montgomery County executive

Rematch comes four years after Elrich won Democratic nomination for post by just 77 votes

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Montgomery County executive candidates Marc Elrich, David Blair and Hans Riemer

File photo

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. July 20 to reflect results of the Primary Day vote with 95 percent of precincts reporting.

After an expensive, often acrimonious campaign that got underway more than 16 months ago, businessman David Blair was clinging to a small lead over incumbent Marc Elrich in the Democratic primary for county executive Wednesday — in a rematch of their contest four years ago that Elrich won by just 77 votes.

Both sides acknowledged it would likely be weeks before the final outcome is known, given the surge of mail-in ballots cast this year – the counting of which won’t begin until Thursday.

While just 10,600 mail-in ballots were cast in the county four years ago, nearly 25,500 for the Democratic primary alone had been received by the Montgomery County Board of Elections as of early Tuesday, with that number certain to climb when the updated numbers are announced Wednesday. Voters had until the polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday to mail their ballots and have them postmarked in a timely manner, or to place them in secure drop boxes throughout the county.

With all of the vote from eight days of early voting, and 95 percent of the vote cast on Primary Day tallied late Tuesday night, Blair held a lead of about just over 1,000 votes, with a margin of 1.5% separating the two candidates: 39.5% for Blair to 38% for Elrich. The third major candidate in the race, at-large County Council Member Hans Riemer was at about 20.5%, with the remaining contender, technology entrepreneur Peter James, pulling less than 2%.

In a county where the Democrats enjoy a voter registration edge of 4-1, winning the Democratic primary is considered tantamount to victory in November. But there was a primary contest for the Republican nomination for executive, with former county GOP chair Reardon Sullivan ahead of Friendship Heights attorney Shelly Skolnick by more than 3,700 votes in the early voting and Primary Day tally, 63.6% to 36.4% – with just over 3,050 Republican mail-in ballots received and waiting to be counted as of Tuesday morning, making it likely that Sullivan would emerge as his party’s nominee.

All told, almost 115,300 mail-in ballots were requested by county residents – nearly 88,500 by Democrats, 11,600 by Republicans, and almost 15,200 by others. Mail-in votes in Maryland are accepted for 10 days, as long as they are postmarked by Tuesday evening.

Tuesday’s primary brought to a close a contest that had been underway since March of 2021, when Elrich said he would seek a second term – and Blair announced the same month that he would make a second run for the office.

Riemer formally joined the race three months later, although there had been little doubt since shortly after Elrich was sworn in at end of 2018 that Riemer – who had bumped up against the three-term limit for County Council members – would try to move across the street in Rockville to the County Executive Office Building.

Another County Council member, Tom Hucker, surprised many political insiders in July 2021 when he announced he was exploring a run. But after nine months of exploring then entering the race, Hucker – who shared many of Elrich’s policy views while expressing frustration with the incumbent’s style of management – pulled out and opted to run instead for an open at-large council seat. He was said to have decided to make the switch after seeing private polling showing him failing to gain traction.

The Democratic field of Elrich, Blair, Riemer and Hucker (joined this past March by James, who appeared at candidate forums without raising significant campaign funds or building a campaign structure) created consternation in some quarters: In a county where 55 percent of the population is comprised of minority groups, according to the 2020 census, all the candidates in the Democratic race for county executive were white males.

Efforts were made, without success, to attract one of the four minority group members on the council into the contest – including its only female member, Nancy Navarro, who opted instead to sign on as the lieutenant gubernatorial running mate of former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

While the 2022 county executive race brought some new issues to the forefront – including climate change and a rising crime rate – many of the issues central to the contest had been debated perennially in county elections for the past four decades, chiefly economic development, housing affordability and transportation.

Consistent with that, the opening volley of the campaign, in the early summer of 2021, involved a report issued by a business group, Empower Montgomery, which pointed to a loss of high-paying, highly skilled jobs in the county even as nearby jurisdictions in Virginia were gaining jobs.

Blair and Riemer, who would jockey for the next year to emerge as the chief alternative to Elrich by positioning themselves as business-friendly progressives, both praised the findings of the Empower Montgomery report as on target. But Elrich, in characteristically blunt fashion, labeled the document as “a piece of garbage,” complaining later that it failed to discuss tax structure and other causes behind Montgomery County’s difficulty in competing with Virginia jurisdictions.

Another major flashpoint was the proposed Thrive 2050 plan seeking to guide future development in the county, and its recommendations for a greater variety of types of housing in some neighborhoods. Riemer praised the Thrive 2050 plan while Elrich repeatedly attacked it, prompting Riemer to use the NIMBY (not in my backyard) label that Elrich’s critics often have affixed to him throughout his more than three decades in county politics.

“I don’t think there’s any going back to the anti-growth politics in Montgomery County,” Riemer declared Tuesday night as returns came in. 

Elrich’s political base among civic and neighborhood groups often made him an outlier in three terms on the County Council on planning and development issues – putting him on the losing ends of 8-1 votes with some frequency.

His transition from legislator to executive after his election to the county’s top job in 2019 was a rocky one, in which he often continued to find himself at odds with his former colleagues on the County Council.

But Elrich, a bete noire for the county’s business community – particularly the real estate and development sector – for much of his career, boasted during the 2022 campaign of how he had worked to make it easier to do business in Montgomery County, while also promoting an economic development plan to transform North Bethesda into a center for life sciences firms.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 – which became the dominant public issue for much of Elrich’s first term – provided the incumbent with a political boost. Some polling found that more than 75 percent of rank-and-file voters gave Elrich high marks on his management of the pandemic, even as rival candidates and several members of the County Council questioned his handling of aspects of it.

On Tuesday night, Elrich – in an interview with Bethesda Beat – unloaded on Blair and Riemer for inaccurate characterizations of his stance on the closure of public schools during the pandemic, along with his position on issues ranging from housing to policing. He labeled their attacks a “smear campaign.”

Having completed his ninth campaign for county office – seven for County Council and two for county executive since 1990 – Elrich declared, “It was the dirtiest campaign I’ve ever seen.”

But Elrich also didn’t mince words in taking on his two leading opponents during the campaign, as he accused Blair and Riemer of pursuing policies that were “very Koch brothers [and] Reaganesque — like let the private sector solve everything.”

Early private polling in the race gave Elrich a comfortable lead, but with a significant number of voters undecided. On Tuesday night, Elrich gibed that it took Blair spending millions of his own wealth to become competitive.

While Blair last fall contended that “I can’t imagine” spending as much as he did in 2018 – when he set a record for a county executive race – the final pre-primary filings with the Maryland State Board of Elections showed him on track to equal or exceed that record.

In 2018, Blair appears to have spent $5.7 million on his bid for executive, with $5.4 million coming from his own pocket. As of July 3 of this year – more than two weeks prior to Primary Day – Blair reported spending $5.07 million, with $4.8 million coming from his personal assets.

Nearly one-third of Blair’s spending as of that date — $1.55 million – was for a saturation TV ad campaign, in which he highlighted a Washington Post editorial that endorsed him while sharply criticizing Elrich on issues ranging from economic development to crime.  

By comparison, Elrich and Riemer, both relying on the county’s public campaign finance system, each managed to raise about a total of $1 million in a combination of public and private funds.

Blair said in an interview Tuesday night that, during the course of the campaign, the primary issue on voters’ minds shifted from COVID-19—the focus on which had been seen as benefiting Elrich — to housing affordability and the overall cost of living in the county. Additionally, in the last six months, he said more voters had mentioned the increase in crime as a major concern.

Blair was not the only big spender in the race, as two so-called super PACs – including one focused on the issue of housing affordability – emerged in the closing weeks of the race.

The Affordable Maryland PAC, seeded initially by a $500,000 donation from a San Francisco billionaire who was a co-founder of Facebook, late last week received another $450,000 in three contributions from Bethesda-based real estate and construction executives. The PAC, created in late June with the stated purpose of opposing Elrich’s re-election, spent nearly $900,000 on TV advertising.

A $250,000 donation to the Affordable Maryland PAC came from Charles Nulsen, president of the Washington Property Co. who founded Empower Montgomery in 2015. In late April, Nulsen created a super PAC called Progressives for Progress, which, to date, has raised nearly $650,000 from county development interests and spent almost $500,000 on ads promoting Blair and an informal slate of County Council candidates selected by leaders of the PAC.

Four years earlier, Blair had been the target of a $100,000 PAC effort sponsored by Progressive Maryland that questioned Blair’s record in business and politics in an effort to boost Elrich’s candidacy.

Steve Bohnel and Dan Schere contributed to this story.