Did Parris Blow It for Kathleen?

Revenge of the soccer moms.

Chatterbox doesn’t know why Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, widely recognized as one of the most promising Democratic politicians of her generation, failed to win the Maryland governorship. (Full disclosure: She’s a friend and former employer; Chatterbox worked on her unsuccessful 1986 bid for Congress.) At the moment, though, Chatterbox is inclined to blame the incumbent governor, Democrat Parris Glendening.

Before proceeding, let’s dismiss two hackneyed interest-group arguments floated in today’s newspapers:

  1. Townsend lost because she failed to name a black running mate. The Washington Post writes that Townsend’s choice of former Republican Charles Larson “backfired when black leaders in Prince George’s County complained that Townsend had passed over qualified black candidates and was taking the African American vote for granted.” This has been a favorite Post theme for several months. But the Post’s own exit poll shows that Townsend won 87 percent of the black vote, about the proportion her Democratic predecessor, Gov. Parris Glendening, won in 1994 and 1998. Turnout in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, the two major concentrations of black voters, was comparable to what it was in 1994 and 1998. Townsend’s Republican opponent, Bob Ehrlich, did choose a black running mate and took out a two-page ad in the Post trumpeting that fact. But he still got only 11 percent of the black vote.

  2. Townsend lost because Maryland is sexist. The Baltimore Sun quotes Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, arguing that Townsend’s fitness to govern was questioned because she was a woman. “There’s some serious gender bias,” he said. Then how to explain the durability of Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski? If anyone were being sexist, it would have to be women: The Post poll shows that 61 percent of white women voted for Ehrlich while only 38 percent voted for Townsend. Ehrlich’s support among white women was only seven percentage points lower than his support among white men.

Now let’s turn to Glendening. The Maryland governor blamed Townsend’s defeat on her campaign, which, he told the Post, was “one of the worst-run campaigns in this country.” He elaborated: “She had a very small group of advisers, and they put on the oddest campaign for governor anybody has ever seen. You have to remember your base, and they did not.” Now, whenever a candidate loses a bid for office, it’s safe to say that candidate’s campaign fell short. Townsend’s personal style was nowhere near as slick as Ehrlich’s, and that likely played a role. Nonetheless, as noted above, Townsend did well with the Democratic urban base, so you can hardly blame Townsend for not tending to it. It was white suburbanites who gave her problems.

Even if it were true that Townsend ran a bad campaign, why would Glendening want to put out that message? It was Glendening, after all, who chose Townsend to be his lieutenant governor and then handed her an unusual amount of responsibility, which he seems to believe she handled well. “She was a great lieutenant governor,” Glendening told the Post, “and she would have been a great governor.” So why dump on her candidacy? Because an alternative explanation for Townsend’s defeat would be that Townsend was hobbled by Glendening’s legacy, in particular his failure to close a state budget gap, which Ehrlich made a huge deal about throughout the campaign. Forty-seven percent of those polled by the Post said, “Democrats have controlled state government for too long and it’s time for a change.” That does not reflect well on Glendening.

Even more than Glendening’s policies, the voters may have been rejecting Glendening himself. Consider: The group that failed to come through for Townsend was white women. During the previous two governor’s races, white women split their vote between Glendening and his Republican opponent. This time around, though, they shifted their vote decisively toward the Republican. Are white women especially exercised about balancing the budget? Of course not. Based on casual observation, though, Chatterbox knows that your typical soccer mom, on hearing that a 59-year-old man divorced his wife to marry his 35-year-old deputy chief of staff, as Glendening did earlier this year, would incline toward rage. Chatterbox does not condone this rage—women, too, have been known to leave their husbands, and logically the depth of the betrayal shouldn’t be inversely proportional to the age of the new lover. Nonetheless, the phenomenon exists, and it would be foolish to discount its intensity. The odd thing to ponder is why these soccer moms would take out their anger on a female candidate. But that’s no odder than what happened in 2000, when voters vented their anger against Bill Clinton’s White House dalliances by withholding their votes from Al Gore, a Boy Scout candidate who adores his wife. Or rather, by withholding just enough votes to deny Gore a clear victory in the Electoral College.