The Maryland Democratic insiders were so confident, so sure Tuesday evening at what was supposed to be Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial victory party in College Park.
A member of Congress, a suburban county official and a representative of the Brown campaign all said separately there was no need to worry about early returns showing Republican Larry Hogan with a sizable lead.
Just wait, they said, until the hefty Brown vote totals come in from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and Baltimore.
“I have literally not heard one person yet that is concerned,” a Democratic staffer said.
Reality arrived with a shock shortly before midnight, when the big TV screens put the Hogan lead at nine points with four-fifths of the votes counted. (He ended up winning by nearly five points.)
Brown, the lieutenant governor, appeared shortly afterward to concede. Most in the crowd stared blankly at the man who had somehow led them to defeat in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1.
The surprise over Brown’s loss was the most dramatic example in the Washington area of the Democratic establishment’s complacency. But other races also underlined the degree to which our region’s dominant party was out of touch with the electorate.
In case after case, the Democrats smugly presumed they could cruise to victory without bothering to seriously address voters’ current anxieties, especially over the economy and taxes.
In the Brown-Hogan race, the party insulted the voters’ intelligence by running a negative campaign stressing divisive social issues, such as abortion and gun control, that for the most part have been settled in Maryland.
A young Democratic leader from Montgomery County, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize the party leadership, complained: “The campaign went negative from the start. And if you ask me to summarize in three sentences what Anthony Brown stands for, I couldn’t do it.”
In Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner (D) barely edged out Ed Gillespie despite heavily outspending the Republican and holding the usual advantage of incumbency. (A recount is possible.)
Warner found out that his carefully nurtured image as a moderate problem-solver doesn’t square with a voting record that virtually always sides with President Obama, who is unpopular in Virginia.
“The role of being a senator means adopting a partisan posture when necessary, which was quite different from the brand he’s cultivated,” said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University.
In Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Montgomery County to the state’s western panhandle, Rep. John Delaney (D) was barely ahead in an uncertain race even though the district map was gerrymandered by Democrats in Annapolis to ensure the party would hold it.
Even in deep-blue Arlington, independent John Vihstadt was reelected to the County Board on a platform of opposing the Columbia Pike streetcar cherished by the board’s Democratic majority.
Admittedly, despite these losses and close calls for Democrats in our region, there’s no major shift that’s going to turn the Washington area red or even purple in the foreseeable future.
Rather, this year’s election showed that local voters, like those nationally, aren’t willing to give Democrats a blank check. Also, on the whole, they’re worried mainly about pocketbook issues, and want candidates who are focused the same way.
In Maryland, Hogan had never held elective office and wasn’t an especially well-known figure. But everybody knew where he stood on his No. 1 issue: He wanted to reduce taxes.
If anything, the importance of economic issues in our region is rising because the area’s growth has started to lag behind the rest of the country owing to cuts in federal spending.
In 2013, compared with other states, Maryland’s economic growth ranked 49th in the country. Only the District and Alaska placed worse, and Virginia was 48th.
“We need more business investment, and not just fast-food restaurants and movie theaters,” said Stephen Fuller, an economist and director of the Center for Regional Analysis in Fairfax. “Too many governments in this area are in denial. They think the economy is going to take care of itself.”
If the Democrats want to preserve their dominance and lead the region effectively, they need to heed Tuesday’s message from the voters about what matters most.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.