Since the 1980s, he said, the percentage of registered Democrats has fallen from about 70 percent to 56 percent; independents have grown from about 1 percent to about 16 percent. As a result, he said, the Democrats voting in Maryland’s primaries tend to be more progressive.
“That will change the mix of folks who are in office,” he said. “So if you’re in the Senate, you see this and you say: ‘Our state is becoming more liberal. We’re going to be punished if we tack to the middle. We can feel more comfortable embracing a progressive agenda.”
Eberly added: “That doesn’t mean the electorate has changed dramatically. I don’t think the voters are there. I think there are a lot of Democrats convincing themselves that the voters are there.”
But Raskin said the results of statewide referendums last year suggest otherwise, at least on some issues.
Voters, he said, supported legalizing same-sex marriage in legislative districts where their state lawmakers opposed that initiative. Voters also approved the Dream Act, which granted qualified illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at state universities.
“If anything,” Raskin said, “the people are more progressive than the politicians in our state.”
The first test of that assertion will come during next year’s elections.
Republicans say that they have identified Democratic incumbents who are vulnerable and that they’re prepared to portray them as disconnected from mainstream voters. State Republican leaders blame the leftward shift on the governor, saying that he is seeking to burnish his progressive credentials in anticipation of a presidential run in 2016.
“Martin O’Malley and the Democrats have a general hostility to taxpayers and small businesses,” said David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. “They’re more concerned with setting up a progressive agenda as opposed to what’s best for taxpayers.”
But the governor and his allies say their main interest is addressing complex problems.
“Maryland’s often ahead of the curve in our country’s ongoing journey,” O’Malley said. “We’re growing more inclusive, more compassionate.”
Whatever the case, Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: The political culture in Annapolis has grown more polarized, reflecting what has occurred nationally.
“We’ve become redder and bluer,” said Bohanan, who joined the General Assembly in 1999 and is an adviser to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D). “In a lot of ways, it reflects Washington, in that people are a lot less willing to compromise.’”
Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert), the House minority leader, said that in the past, the Democrats were defined by two factions: progressives on one side, moderates and conservatives on the other.
“That would keep things from going too far to the left,” he said. “Now we have a bunch of leftists who dominate the General Assembly, and they’re making policy.”
Much of the opposition to progressive legislation has been voiced by representatives of Maryland’s rural areas, whose demographics have remained largely the same while those of the Baltimore and Washington suburbs have changed.
“There are two Marylands — the urban and the rural — and they have declared war on the rural areas,” Del. Michael D. Smigiel (R-Cecil) said in an interview, referring to progressives.
“I’m going to use the S-word,” he said, glancing at his chief of staff, who groaned and covered her eyes.
“Secession,” he said.
In Smigiel’s view, the Eastern Shore, which he represents, has more in common politically with Virginia, and Western Maryland is more like West Virginia.
Yet, for all his bluster, Smigiel stressed that he has worked with Democrats. Most recently, he voted for a medical marijuana bill. (“You’re going to deny a patient something that can help them because I don’t like the aesthetics of grandma toking on a joint?” he asked.)
In fact, Smigiel was a Democrat until about 2000, when “they left me and went too far left.” He became a Republican, and now he chairs the tea party caucus in Annapolis.
In politics, as the delegate well knows, things change.