Election Analysis: Party brands still matter

The so-called conventional wisdom weaving its way around Salisbury on Election Day morning was that Bob Culver would be re-elected County Executive, topping Jack Heath, with John Hamilton trailing far behind.

Speculation had the percentages at 45 percent Culver, 40 percent Heath and 15 percent Hamilton.

The results, as everyone knows by now, were far different. With the first round of absentees and provisional votes added in, Republican Culver received 49.1 percent of the vote, Democrat Hamilton received 29.8 percent and the unaffiliated Heath managed 21 percent.

The conspiracy lovers have alleged Hamilton was secretly lured into the race to take votes away from Heath. To believe that, however, one would have to believe the opposite, that Heath took votes away from the Democrat and helped Culver to victory.

The puzzle is how could Hamilton — who raised only $1,310 for his campaign (those receipts coming from 10 individuals who would appear to be family and Upper Shore friends); whose party essentially turned its back on him; who seemed an earnest but wholly unqualified as a candidate – could mount a challenge that so greatly affected the outcome.

The answer, while not immediately obvious, is simple.

Branding.

It seems that in Wicomico County politics, as in advertising, branding still matters.

“The party label of the candidates is still an important voting cue for many people,” said Dr. Harry Basehart, retired political science professor at Salisbury University. “Even if voters don’t know anything about the people who are running, they’ll say “I like Democrats” – and then they’ll go in and vote for Democrats.”

Two other county races perhaps back up that observation. County Council At-Large candidate Julie Brewington raised $1,670 for her campaign, yet she received no money from the local Republican Party, under whose flag she was sailing. Brewington received 13,077 votes and finished behind Democrat Bill McCain by just 588 votes. McCain’s campaign raised more than $8,000 for the race.

Also in the council at-large race, Democrat Jamaad Gould was nearly invisible on the campaign trail, raised about $1,000 and received 10,657 votes.

Because voters have a general understanding of what each major party stands for, Basehart contends it’s “not necessarily bad” that voters might rely so heavily on branding.

“A candidate might not have all of the qualifications,” he said, “but knowing their party and what the party believes in is sometimes enough.”

Basehart, who has been active in Democratic Party politics since his 2008 retirement, speculated that Heath should have run as a Democrat.

“Hamilton’s votes would have gone to Jack,” Basehart said. “My guess also is that Republicans who might have been unhappy with Bob would have voted for Jack.”

Heath, a week removed from the balloting, said he just doesn’t fit as a member of the Democratic Party. He flirted with running for County Executive as a Republican, but that label didn’t fit either and he changed his registration after just two days.

“I have been an Independent since I was 18,” he said. “I was a Republican for two days and it just wasn’t for me.

“The bottom line: My belief is if I’m true to myself, I have to vote for the right person to do the job, regardless of the party label,” Heath said.

In recent years, 15,000 votes has been the magic threshold to winning. When he won re-election in 2010, Democrat Rick Pollitt won 15,022 votes to Republican challenger Joe Ollinger’s 14,110 total. Turnout was low four years ago when Culver defeated Pollitt’s third-term bid, taking 14,184 votes to the incumbent’s 11,348 votes. Culver garnered nearly 16,000 this year.

According to the county’s Board of Elections, of the county’s 57,632 registered voters, 26,170 are Democrats and 20,867 are Republicans. About 900 people are members of third parties and 9,643 have declared themselves independents or unaffiliated.

City vs. county

In the hour after learning of his victory, Culver attempted to explain his easy win by contrasting his management style with that of the city’s.

“I do think this turned into a city and county thing,” he said. “I get condemned for keeping necessary funds in reserve to ensure the financial strength of this county, but it’s obvious the residents appreciate the fiscal responsibility I push for.”

Culver added that his opponents “simply weren’t reading the electorate.”

The relationship between the city of Salisbury and the county has been a family problem for years – one the Wicomico family doesn’t like to talk about.

People who live in the county have difficulty embracing the city, seeing it as dangerously progressive and left-leaning, while the county enjoys its rural traditions.

The feeling can go both ways – when rural residents offer an opinion about what should happen in Salisbury, it triggers the irritation of those who live there.

Things became especially exacerbated in 1990, when nonresident city property owners lost their right to vote in city elections. Suddenly the well-heeled Salisbury businessmen who held businesses Downtown and along Salisbury Boulevard had no say in who held office.

Various moves to consolidate the city and county governments then emerged and continued – sometimes forcefully, others rather passively – as recently as 2001. Even city residents were intrigued by consolidation: In the same 2000 voter referendum in which they nixed adoption of a city manager form of government, Salisbury voters supported exploring consolidation with the county.

A hope has been that with Salisbury enjoying a renaissance of sorts, the county might be more supportive. For example, the two governments and two populations – working in unison – would be much more effective when it comes to economic development and capital spending that benefits the masses.

But tensions have always been high between Worcester County and Ocean City, Cambridge and rural Dorchester, Baltimore City and everyone else — perhaps it’s the norm today and going forward.

Watching Culver and Salisbury Mayor Jake Day in the coming months will be interesting. Each man is protective of their political kingdoms. Day, who fervently supported Heath in the just-passed election, has never voiced any interest in running for County Executive. He has said he will run for re-election as mayor a year from now in 2019; it is presumed he will have higher political ambitions than County Executive as a next step in his career.

As projected even before Heath’s defeat, Culver and Day will get along as well as they have to – and that’s all. They used to meet weekly, but not anymore. Their offices are less than 50 feet apart on the third floor of the Government Office Building, where the city and county are awkward housemates.

The city is waiting for the right building opportunity before venturing to a new City Hall. Culver once suggested the county offices could relocate outside the city center, but Day desperately needs to keep those county workers Downtown to help maintain business vitality.

Culver and Day have worked in unison on some key issues: They negotiated a long-needed Fire Services Agreement that has actually benefited the county financially when the expectation was that it would benefit the city; they are in sync on what the future of the county’s airport should be; they have worked together on funding for opioid crisis initiatives.

On most issues, however, they appear content to go their own way without help from one another.

Heath, who was criticized in some circles as being too pro-city, said this week that he still believes a united city and county working as a team – be it in economic development efforts, quality-of-life solutions, water and sewer expansion and improvements – is the way to go.

“If we were to take the strengths of the city and county and combine them, we’d be unstoppable,” he said. “As long as this perceived wall exists, we’re limited in our ability to achieve our goals. It’s a shame.”

County Council

A County Council that last week had a 6-to-1 Republican majority will soon have a 4-to-3 Republican advantage. The two council newcomers are both Democrats, Bill McCain and Josh Hastings.

Each man ran on pro-public education platforms and each called for increased education spending.

In the aftermath of the election, they appeared determine to keep a focus on education and schools spending.

“Education was the first question asked at nearly every forum, interview, or event during the campaign season in Wicomico County,” said McCain. “It is the No. 1 issue of concern expressed by the citizenry, as well as the business community.

“Thus, it consequently needs to be the No. 1 priority addressed at budget time,” he said.

Hastings struck an identical tone.

“Education is the single most important factor to the future success of our region and I will proudly sound the horn of greater investment in our schools,” he said.

“Intellectual poverty leads to economic poverty and if we are to truly address the deep poverty in our county, we need to invest in education – now.”

McCain said he will push to meet the school board’s requests.

“The Board of Education requested $5 million over Maintenance of Effort last year but was only given $500,000, or 10 percent of the request. The board’s request was to enable our school system to implement universal Pre-K, increase graduation rates, and attract and retain high quality teachers. Those needs still exist and even more so now.

“We only have partial Pre-K funding and have a long way to go to make teacher salaries and benefits competitive with their peers,” McCain said.

Hastings said he is well aware of the county-wide concern about increasing spending and possibly raising taxes or fees.

“While folks are deeply concerned with even the slightest hint of taxes, they are also deeply troubled by the state of Wicomico schools and what that means for attracting new employers to the area,” Hastings said.

“If change is to occur with the current abysmal per pupil funding, it’s going to require a massive public outcry,” he said, “and certainly much greater that what we witnessed in the previous year.”

Voter turnout

More attention was paid to this year’s races, if voter turnout is an indicator.

In Wicomico 51.9 percent of registered voters made it to the polls, up from 43.76 percent when the same ballot of races was contested in 2014.

As usual, Republicans did a better job of turning out their voters, with 61 percent of GOP followers voting, compared to 50.93 percent of Democrats.

Queen Anne’s County recorded the state’s highest voter turnout with 61.8 percent.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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