Michael Higgs wanted to pump some fight into the 50 or so Donald Trump supporters who packed the second floor of an office rowhouse in Rockville, the Republican Party’s outpost in deep-blue Montgomery County.
“We have a lot of angry people on the left. A lot of anger out there these days,” said Higgs, chairman of the county GOP. That makes it tempting, he said, to avoid talking politics with friends or neighbors, or even planting a yard sign.
Don’t be cowed, he urged.
“It’s more important than ever for people to see that they’re not alone, especially here in this liberal stronghold of the People’s Republic of Montgomery County,” said Higgs, a genial telecommunications attorney whose work in Larry Hogan’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign helped him land him a post as deputy director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.
“Never forget, there’s 124,000 registered Republicans in this county. So anytime you think you’re the only guy in your neighborhood, you’re not.”
It’s actually 121,474 on the rolls of the registered, according to the latest Board of Elections data,surrounded by 376,934 Democrats (not to mention 142,004 independents) who have thrived over the last quarter century as the GOP shifted rightward and the county grew more diverse.
No Republican presidential candidate has carried Montgomery since Ronald Reagan, who eked out 50.1 percent in 1984. Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) was gerrymandered out of office by Democratic state lawmakers in 2002, and the last Republican on the County Council, Howard Denis, was unseated four years later.
On this recent evening, though, in this room, an enthusiastic cross-section of the Trump coalition came together — largely white, north of 40, and voicing a mix of disillusion, anxiety and anger over the direction of the country.
They took different paths to supporting Trump, but most converge around illegal immigration and border security, the belief that Democrat Hillary Clinton must be stopped, and that their candidate is the prescriptive for a political establishment rotten with insiderism and corruption across both parties.
The meeting drew from right-wing movements that have found a harbor in Trump’s candidacy. There was John O’Malley, 62, a 9/11 “truther” who believes the attacks were the work of rogue elements inside the U.S. government. He said he is drawn to Trump because the New York billionaire has indicated a willingness to reopen the investigation into the events of that day.
O’Malley, a retired Pentagon and Food and Drug Administration research analyst who ran for the Montgomery County Council in 2014, was also there to represent Maryland 20/20 Watch, a tea party offshoot. He distributed applications for election judge posts in Baltimore City, saying there could be massive voter fraud at the polls.
Seated off to the side was Brad Botwin, by day a senior official in the Commerce Department’s Office of Technology Evaluation. On his own time, he is founder and director of Help Save Maryland, listed as a “nativist-extremist” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its history of hostility to illegal immigrants. He has said the listing is baseless.
In a July blog post, Botwin assailed Montgomery police chief Tom Manger for lax enforcement of immigration laws that he said has led to a surge of gang-related violence in “the unnaturally diverse communities of Montgomery Village and Gaithersburg.” His site carries commentary calling Casa de Maryland, the immigrant advocacy group, “Maryland’s Number 1 Illegal Entity,” and sells stickers with a bright red slash across the Casa logo.
Botwin enlisted volunteers to staff campaign booths at county events this fall. “We don’t take any crap from anybody, right?” he told a couple of interested high school students. “We’re Trump people.”
Higgs, whose nomination to Maryland’s Public Service Commission stalled last year after Democratic lawmakers objected to some old tweets (“newsflash Illegal alien immigrants now to be referred to as #UndocumentedDemocrats”), said that while the party has no formal relationship with Help Save Maryland, the organization is a welcome presence.
“Brad has a great group, those guys do good work,” said Higgs. “We have a lot of the same stances on a lot of the issues.”
Although Trump won 55 percent of the statewide vote in Maryland’s Republican primary, he captured only 39 percent in Montgomery, edging Ohio Gov. John Kasich by 1,700 votes. A few people at the meeting in Rockville the other night reflected some of that ambivalence.
Dwight Patel hopscotched from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and then Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) before making his peace with Trump. Even now, he says he would be happier with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at the top of the ticket.
“Like Donald Rumsfeld said, ‘You go to war with the Army you have,’ and not the one we wish we had,” said Patel, 44, an architect and the county party’s second vice chair.
Larry Eisenberg, a tax and pension attorney who lives in Gaithersburg, said he’d long been uneasy about speaking out on politics, repelled by the sense of “moral superiority” he encountered from Democrats. But he came to the meeting with his wife, Jessica Brede, a CPA and tax partner in a wealth advisory firm, as “curious conservatives” who believe it is important that Clinton be defeated. Trump’s raw rhetoric is not a concern.
“Gaffes don’t matter,” said Eisenberg, 58. “I know exactly what he’s trying to say. . . . I think it is very important that we have a rational immigration system. That’s not a racist comment. We have a constitutional right to determine who becomes a citizen, and that includes those who support our constitution and whose primary allegiance is to the United States.”
Ruth Melson, a fixture in the 65-year-old Montgomery County Federation of Republican Women, was there also, none too pleased that Hogan, the state’s increasingly popular governor, has declared Trump unfit for office and has vowed not to vote for him this fall.
“I think it’s terrible. The Republican leader of the state saying he’s not supporting his presidential candidate. No excuses for it, ” said Melson, a retired Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation official and longtime Trump admirer, who lives in Garrett Park. “New York City would be slums without Donald Trump,” she said.
For about 90 minutes, Higgs walked through some of the basics for the fall campaign, including phone banks and the Sept. 26 debate watch party, which he promised would be “Huuuuge.” He also put out a call for surrogate speakers, volunteers “who have the gift of gab” but can also “sort of keep it in check.”
As the session wound down he addressed the elephant in the room — that barring an astonishing reversal, Maryland’s 10 electoral votes will not be a factor in Trump’s strategy. A Washington Post-Survey Monkey poll of the state’s likely voters shows him trailing Clinton by 30 points.
“Talking candidly here — Maryland may not be on their final vote strategy,” Higgs said, meaning that the group should not count on heavy support from the national campaign.
Higgs tried to end on an upbeat note, telling the faithful on Crabbs Branch Way they could still have an impact by making calls and bus trips into bona fide battleground states like Pennsylvania, hooking up with other county organizations and going door-to-door.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get Maryland in play,” he said, “and move those polls in the right direction.”