Hang on, Montgomery County: It’s about to get weird.
In a heavily blue jurisdiction where the Democratic primary has decided the outcome of the county executive’s race since 1978, the run-up to November’s general election promises to be a little different.
Longtime Democrat Nancy Floreen has broken from the party, using developer and real estate money to mount an independent campaign to best Democrat Marc Elrich, a progressive backed by unions and party leaders.
Meanwhile, the Republican candidate, Robin Ficker, has access to serious cash for the first time, thanks to the county’s public campaign financing system. In a three-way race, some say that could be enough to vault him into top office in a county of 1 million people that is struggling with how to grow jobs and attract businesses while maintaining social services and high-performing schools.
“If you’re the Democratic nominee in Montgomery County, the conventional wisdom is, you’ve got it made,” said Bruce Adams, a Democrat who left the County Council in 1994. “It’s odd to have a meaningful general election.”
Campaign events, fundraisers, mailings and advertisements — which county voters saw in spades during a historically crowded Democratic primary — promise to continue through Nov. 6. All three executive candidates plan to appear at the Kensington and Gaithersburg Labor Day parades on Monday, marking the unofficial start to general-election season.
Elrich’s status as the Democratic nominee in a county where 60 percent of voters are registered Democrats gives him a “huge advantage” — especially among disengaged voters who might not be familiar with the individual candidates, outgoing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said.
A three-term at-large council member, Elrich won the six-way June primary with 29 percent of the vote. He was the only one of the three Democratic county executive candidates using the public campaign financing system to secure enough small donations to qualify for the maximum $750,000 in primary funds.
But public financing also comes with drawbacks — the state Democratic Party cannot help Elrich financially because of a provision in the law that prohibits contributions from outside groups. In addition, donors who already gave him the maximum contribution of $150 cannot give more for the general election.
Phil Andrews, the former council member who wrote the county’s public financing law, said the statute intentionally requires those taking public money to seek funding beyond their typical sources.
“It’s important to encourage candidates to keep broadening their base,” said Andrews, a Democrat. “In a general election, it’s desirable for nominees to reach out beyond activists, to encourage them to have the broadest possible outreach to constituents, regardless of party affiliation.”
Elrich, who in filings reported raising more than $26,000 from donors since the June 26 primary, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But earlier this month, after the Montgomery County Sierra Club announced it was throwing its support behind him, he talked about the “really strong reception” he has gotten from the party.
“We’re getting money in every day, and there are plenty of other people to go to,” Elrich said, adding that he has the backing of supporters of some of his primary rivals, such as council members Roger Berliner (D-District 1) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), as well as party heavyweights such as Leggett and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.).
“I have friends who voted for Roger and voted for George but will vote for me in the general,” he said.
Jeffrey Slavin, mayor of Somerset and a state Democratic leader, said Elrich “just needs to get Democratic voters to vote for who their party selected and unify the party.”
Leggett, who has not endorsed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous out of concern that his progressive proposals could hurt Montgomery County, said it’s possible that some Democrats who cross party lines to vote for Hogan could be inclined to do so for Floreen as well.
“The rigidity is not as hard as it used to be,” Leggett said.
Floreen said she plans to shop herself as a moderate choice to Republicans, independents and those Democrats who don’t vote religiously in every election.
Because she is not using public financing — anyone wanting to use the system would have had to qualify 45 days before the primary — she is free to raise money from individuals, corporations and other groups, facing none of the restraints that Elrich has. She took in $342,000 in about six weeks, mostly from real estate and business interests, according to her campaign finance report, using some of the money to fund her petition drive to get on the ballot.
Leggett said Floreen may appeal to voters who want more women in elected office — she would be Montgomery’s first female county executive. And she already has name recognition among voters across the county, who have elected her to an at-large seat on the council four times.
But they elected her as a Democrat, not as an independent — and Floreen, who says she entered the race only because she did not want to see Elrich as the Democratic nominee, acknowledges she has upended the traditional march to November.
“It’s sort of redefining how a general election occurs in Montgomery County. We’ve never had anything like this before,” she said. “Certainly the Democratic Party regulars are going through a psychic adjustment right now because they thought it was all over.”
Slavin was serene about Floreen’s bid. “She’s saying she’s going to bring people together in a new, nonpartisan way. I don’t think she’s throwing away her Democratic values,” he said. “This is just her path to get on the ballot.”
But others — such as Fran Rothstein, president of the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County — are less sanguine. “Third-party candidates are not good for the Democratic Party,” Rothstein said, adding that she felt Floreen has “snubbed her nose at the party.”
“It makes me so sad,” she said. “Nancy is someone that I have admired for so long. And this feels like not an admirable thing to have done.”
Rothstein said she is concerned that Floreen will split the Democratic vote enough to create a pathway to victory for Ficker — a perennial candidate, former sports heckler and the force behind two successful ballot measures on term limits and tax hikes.
“If it puts Ficker into the county executive slot, it will be the worst calculation ever made,” she said.
The usual script was last tossed aside in 1990, after slow-growth candidate Neal Potter challenged then-County Executive Sidney Kramer for the Democratic nomination. Potter won a surprise primary victory, after which Kramer launched an unsuccessful write-in campaign for the general election.
Adams, the former council member who now directs the county’s Office of Community Partnerships, said Floreen’s candidacy changes the terrain in a way that Kramer’s move never did.
“Nancy’s on the ballot. Sid was a write-in — a write-in is near to impossible,” said Adams, who voted for Potomac businessman David Blair in the primary but now supports Elrich. “I’m not predicting that Nancy’s candidacy gets Ficker elected. I’m just saying I wouldn’t play with that fire.”
County GOP chair Mark Uncapher dismissed the idea that Floreen will appeal to Montgomery Republicans, saying her 16-year council record closely links her with the “pro-tax and -spending majority.”
He said the entry of a third candidate “certainly enhances” Ficker’s chances, adding that, as a recipient of public financing, Ficker “will be waging a financially stronger campaign than has been the case for Republican candidates” in past county elections.
Ficker, who ran as an independent for county executive in 2006 and served one term as a state delegate starting in 1979, said late last month that he welcomed the three-way race.
“I’m for robust discussion of the issues and for people taking part in this wonderful American system that we have,” Ficker said. “Who am I to say that someone can’t participate? As far as I’m concerned, the more that participate, the better.”