The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A surprising grass-roots upheaval is shaking Maryland’s Democrats

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous campaigns in Kensington, Md., on Aug. 4. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)

A grass-roots upheaval in Maryland’s Democratic Party has made it an unexpected showcase for national efforts by liberal activists and unions seeking to revitalize the party and push it to the left.

Primary victories by progressives in three premier races — governor and county executive in Montgomery and Baltimore counties — have created a prominent testing ground for a new brand of Democratic politics, featuring ambitious and potentially expensive policy proposals and greater outreach to the working class.

Fueled by anger at President Trump and a sense that Democrats have lost touch with their base, the insurgency is stirring strife within the party, with some moderates already abandoning ship. It also is aggravating polarization with Republicans, with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous using the ­“f-bomb” expletive last week in rejecting GOP television ads calling him a socialist.

The intraparty tension is an unfamiliar experience for Maryland, a Hillary Clinton stronghold, with long-serving Democratic legislative leaders and a comfortable balance between liberals and moderates.

In addition to Jealous, the progressive nominees include Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (At Large) and John A. Olszew­ski Jr. for the top jobs in populous Montgomery and Baltimore counties, respectively. All three won hard-fought primaries with strong labor backing and endorsements from liberal groups including the Working Families Party and Our Revolution, the political operation of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Progressives also defeated moderates in four state Senate races.

Jealous and the other nominees are being watched as a measure of the Democrats’ future direction, with the party seeking to rebuild at the state and local level after years of neglect and decay.

The left-wing advance in Maryland contrasts with setbacks suffered Tuesday by Democratic insurgents in the Midwest, where centrists won primaries in the Michigan gubernatorial race and in suburban House districts elsewhere.

But left-wing candidates are also ousting incumbents and showing strength in races for state and local offices in New Mexico, Rhode Island, Arizona, Illinois and Colorado. Progressives Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Paulette Jordan in Idaho also won their gubernatorial nominations — the only Sanders-endorsed Democrats besides Jealous nominated so far in gubernatorial primaries.

“The old system and the old machines that were in place are at risk of being displaced pretty quick,” said Jeff Hauser, a project director at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Jealous is definitely at the cutting edge of this phenomenon.”

Leggett not ready to endorse Jealous; some other Democrats are tepid.

The risk for Democrats is that the shift to the left will cost them centrist support they need for the general election. Jealous is widely seen as the underdog in his bid to topple Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has high popularity ratings and has governed as a moderate.

Elrich’s victory prompted longtime Montgomery Democrat and fellow County Council member Nancy Floreen (At Large) to drop her party allegiance and run for county executive as an independent, accusing Elrich of being too extreme. In Baltimore County, state Sen. James Brochin (D), who has broken with the party before on social issues, endorsed Hogan last week after narrowly losing the county executive primary to Olszewski.

But the progressives counter that Democrats today can best attract new voters and recapture those who have deserted the party in recent years by pursuing an unapologetic embrace of working-class interests. To that end, they call for single-payer health care, debt-free college and a $15 minimum wage.

They want to distance the party from corporate influence that they say played too big a role in Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential bid and tap into the anti-Trump energy evident in mass protests and surging numbers of Democratic candidates and campaign volunteers.

“When Democrats run as Democrats, with no shame about our commitment to fight for working people, we win — we win big,” Jealous told a party unity event in Prince George’s last month.

Olszewski, universally known as “Johnny O.,” said voters “are clamoring for people who are offering more than half measures, and who are providing those big bold solutions to the pressing challenges that our families are facing.”

Elrich said his campaign focused on local issues, including “schools and roads, very unsexy stuff, and restructuring local government.” But he added, “A lot of Democrats continue to want the party to be progressive, and kind of live up to the tradition. I put myself in kind of the [Franklin D.] Roosevelt camp. . . . All of us are trying to say, ‘Government can do good things.’ ”

Party volunteer Claudia Morrell, 59, a small-business owner who canvassed for Olszewski last weekend, said voters in her community have lost faith in the party’s old power brokers and see Jealous and Olszewski as “new Democrats with a new vision. They’re really listening to the people.”

Democratic socialists stage a summertime comeback

The progressives are shifting campaign tactics to focus more on street-level organizing and social media outreach. Jealous’s strategists say he can beat Hogan if they meet their goal of boosting turnout to 2.1 million, a jump of 20 percent from the tepid showing in 2014, when Hogan upset Democratic nominee Anthony G. Brown. The party plans to have more than 60 paid field organizers on the ground in Maryland by mid-September, compared with a total of 15 for the entire campaign four years ago.

Most of the state’s Democratic establishment is closer to the center than Jealous, but senior leaders say they are drawn to his promises of a rejuvenated base and expanded turnout.

“Ben has worked hard to increase voter participation in Maryland, and . . . has brought fresh ideas to the gubernatorial race,” said U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a moderate who is No. 2 in the Democrats’ House leadership.

Progressives are working to elect activists to Democratic central committees across the state, knowing that those posts are often a steppingstone to seats on county councils or in the state legislature. The effort has already led to strains at a noisy meeting of the Prince George’s Democratic central committee last month.

“Our people are very committed to taking over the county central committees in this state,” said Bob Muehlenkamp, chairman of Our Revolution Maryland.

During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office. Democratic control of governor’s offices and state legislatures dropped significantly, reducing the party’s ability to influence redistricting after the 2020 Census.

“People nationally are beginning to realize they have to build up the [party] infrastructure at the local level,” said Kevin Harris, a senior Jealous adviser.

Megan Root, 21, a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who spoke with Jealous when he canvassed in Kensington earlier this month, said young people are showing more interest in local races in the wake of Trump’s election.

Local officials “are the people that actually control things,” Root said. “You have to pay attention to local when things don’t go the way you want at the national level.”

Jealous-Baker fight exposes divisions over how Democrats can win.

Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director of the Working Families Party, said candidates it endorsed won two state legislative primaries and two for county commissioner in Illinois, and seven legislative primaries in Colorado, in addition to the Maryland races.

In New Mexico, progressive newcomer Susan Herrera defeated a 25-year incumbent state lawmaker in what a local newspaper dubbed “the end of a political era.” Her victory, and others by liberals in New Mexico, will push the state legislature to the left on issues including the minimum wage and same-sex marriage, analysts said.

In Rhode Island, left-leaning Aaron Regunberg is battling incumbent Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee (D), a moderate, with a platform that includes moving faster to develop renewable energy sources and adopting Medicare for all.

“A lot of it is just making sure the state [policy] is contingent on the will of the people, and not just on corporations and lobbyists who fund candidates,” said David Segal, a board member of the Rhode Island Working Families Party.

In Arizona, former professor David Garcia is making a strong bid to win the gubernatorial nomination, with endorsements from the same liberal organizations that backed Abrams and Jealous. His main issue is spending more on education, but he also drew Republican criticism in the border state for urging replacement of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The question remains whether the progressive trend will backfire in the general election. That possibility did not daunt Morrell, the Baltimore County volunteer. Asked whether Jealous was too liberal to beat Hogan, she answered, “I would ask you: Is Donald Trump too crazy to win? Nothing is impossible anymore.”