In largely blue Montgomery County, June might as well be November.
So for the six Democratic candidates for county executive, it’s a countdown to the June 26 primary to determine who will succeed longtime executive Isiah Leggett (D) as the leader of Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction.
Voters must choose from three sitting council members, a state delegate, a former mayor and a businessman. And while at-large council member Marc Elrich has racked up the most endorsements and was the top vote-getter among at-large candidates in the past two primaries, experts say it is still anybody’s race.
“Very fluid,” said Keith Haller, a political analyst who has conducted polling on the contest but has not formally released the results. “You still have over half of the prime Democrats self-identifying as undecided, and it’s an insider’s game with political junkies right now.”
What will be key to victory, political observers say, is voter turnout, candidate name recognition and several crucial, yet-to-be-announced endorsements — including the “Apple Ballot,” issued by the county teachers union. That group has said it will wait to see how Elrich and the other council members in the race vote on the budget before deciding whom to back.
This year’s crowded field — the numbers of candidates buoyed not just by term limits but also by the new public campaign financing system — makes standing out that much harder.
“You have to get voters to recognize your name to begin with and then what it is that is your identity,” said Steve Silverman, a consultant and former council member who ran against Leggett for county executive in 2006. “What is it that you stand for?”
Being a sitting council member adds a bump — voters countywide may be more familiar with the names Roger Berliner (D-District 1), Marc Elrich and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) than those of the other candidates, former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow, businessman David Blair, and Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery). But it could also hurt.
County voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved term limits — a measure pushed by Republican Robin Ficker, a lawyer who will face the Democratic primary winner in November — and some argue the vote was targeted at throwing out familiar faces in county government.
The six Democrats have tried to differentiate themselves: Berliner points to his work on the environment and transportation. Leventhal touts his support in the immigrant community and on health and human services. Elrich says he is the progressive, demanding more concessions from developers. Krasnow is running in part because she wants women’s voices to be heard. Blair says he is “the outsider, but with an insider’s perspective.” Frick calls himself a “reformer to Rockville,” the county seat.
Elrich, Leventhal and Krasnow opted for the public financing system, which leverages small donations with county funds, while the other three candidates are raising money in the traditional way.
None of the candidates have gone negative in campaigning. Debates and forums have been largely cordial affairs that often obscure disagreements among the candidates, such as whether or how to attract development.
“Even though there’s more than a dime’s worth of difference between the six candidates, you wouldn’t know it in the debates they’ve been holding,” said Gus Bauman, a lawyer and longtime political observer who ran for county executive in 1994. “This is one time when it would be helpful to the county voter for candidates to be candid, not just about themselves but about other candidates.”
Jeffrey Slavin, mayor of Somerset and a state Democratic leader, said Elrich “probably is the perceived front-runner right now,” thanks to his endorsements from unions, progressive groups and others, and his past record of getting votes.
But Silverman said Elrich is not necessarily leading — he has just done the best job at defining himself.
“There’s no survey, public or private, that has anointed anybody a clear front-runner,” Silverman said. “It would be fairer to characterize the executive’s race as Marc has a definitive lane — the far-left, pro-union, anti-development lane. The other five are trying to find their lanes.”
Haller said no other candidate “has really surfaced as a solid, clear alternative to Marc Elrich.”
“Candidates are afraid if you attack Elrich, you are attacking the groups that he has behind him,” Haller said. “You’re attacking a little bit of the bread and butter of the hardcore Democratic base.”
The candidates for county executive are not just competing with each other to emerge at the forefront of voters’ minds. They are also, in a way, competing with 33 Democratic candidates for at-large County Council seats, as well as a trove of candidates in other local and state primary races, including for governor.
That means key Democratic voters — those who are most likely to vote in primary elections and thus will be targeted by candidates — will be wading through sheaves of campaign mailings and ads in the run-up to the June primary. And predictions on voter turnout have been mixed.
“This is going to be a very small turnout,” Bauman said. “It’s an off-year election. There is no burning issue. It’s at a strange time, the end of June. For all of those reasons, it’s not going to be a huge turnout.”
Haller also said the trend is for turnout to be low, with an expected anti-Trump wave among Democrats not likely to manifest until November. But others, including Slavin, said they expect more voters than in recent years. In the 2014 primary, just over 17 percent voted, according to Montgomery County Board of Elections records. In 2010, that number was almost 20 percent.
“I’m anticipating we’re going to [have a] big turnout because of so many races going on and everybody has their own little base that they’re going to activate,” Slavin said, adding, “Candidates that can identify that second and third level of participatory voters and get them to the polls for them, that will be very important.”
The picture is likely to look quite different in a month as candidates begin marshaling the power of direct mail and other voter messaging.
“We’re in the second inning of a nine-inning game,” Silverman said. “For everybody who spends every day focused on it, it seems like we’re at the top of the ninth. There’s a long way to go.”