Maryland Democrats have internalized the harsh lessons of the 2014 and 2016 elections which left Larry Hogan in the governor’s mansion and Donald Trump in the White House, Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Matthews said, and they’re doing the hard work that is needed to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
“We need to get back to basics,” Matthews said during an exclusive interview at The Sentinel’s Rockville offices. “We need to start listening to people. People felt like they had been ignored and that Democrats took their votes for granted.”
But to make sure voters don’t feel ignored this time around, Matthews described the way Democrats have been hitting the streets with a goal of personally contacting 10,000 voters before the 2018 elections to have substantial conversations. And voters have been “appreciative” of Democrats’ efforts thus far, Matthews reported.
Matthews described how voters are happy to hear from Democrats outside of the context of get-out-the-vote efforts: “People say, ‘normally I hear from the Democrats in the days leading up to the election when you tell me who to vote for. And here you are a year ahead of the election and you’re asking me questions.’”
“We’re rebuilding trust in the party,” she added.
Matthews, a former television journalist whose 8th District primary battle with now-Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-8th District) and businessman David Trone became one of the most expensive House races in history, said she has visited all of Maryland’s 23 counties as well as Baltimore City since becoming party chair, and has found that Maryland’s political makeup is like a microcosm of the United States itself.
“Montgomery County is different than a lot of the state,” Matthews explained. “We are very blue, very Democratic here.”
But Matthews acknowledged that not all Marylanders think like voters in Montgomery County.
“You get out to western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, those are counties that voted for Trump,” she said. “They voted for Larry Hogan and the Republican at greater margins than before.”
The challenge Maryland Democrats face, Matthews says, is learn how to focus on the issues that affect all Marylanders, and to bring people in all parts of the state together to effect change.
And while Matthews believes that President Trump’s policies are hurting all Marylanders, she wants voters to know what the Democratic Party stands for, and for them to understand that Democrats are for more than simply being against Donald Trump.
“It’s around the jobs agenda, investing in education and protecting our environment,” Matthews said.
Voters need to ask themselves if they are better off under Larry Hogan and Donald Trump than they were before, and if they think the current administration’s policies will leave them better off, she said, using Hogan’s stewardship of Maryland’s economy as an example.
“Larry Hogan talks about how he’s brought back the jobs that were lost in the economic downturn, but that gets you even, not ahead,” Matthews said. “We have seen that wages have not recovered in Maryland, whereas they have in Virginia. They have nationwide. We’ve got very anemic wage growth here. That’s less money in the pocket of the average Marylander.”
Health care remains a key issue for voters, she added, whether they want a single payer plan, or lower prescription drug prices, particularly if they are concerned about the effects of the opioid crisis that has lead to deaths in all parts of Maryland.
“We’ve got to be aggressively going after this opioid crisis, not just talking about it, but actually putting resources behind prevention, treatment and education,” she said, added that she thinks Maryland is simply “treading water” under Hogan’s administration when Maryland voters expect progress. “I think that’s why Bob Ehrlich lost after one term. Marylanders want to move forward.”
When the conversation turned to the race to unseat Hogan, Matthews listed the entire roster of challengers, all of whom she called “great candidates.”
But the issue of who wins the gubernatorial primary is a less important issue compared with the real goal of the upcoming election, which is to get Democrats across Maryland to work together and ensure Hogan’s defeat.
“Our big target is Larry Hogan, not each other,” Matthews said.
And just like Democrats nationwide need to show voters they stand for more than opposing Donald Trump, Matthews said the Democratic Party has to sharpen its message and show voters why Larry Hogan is not a great governor for Marylanders. While putting up a united front is important, Matthews acknowledged that the first thing Democrats need to do is to get past the perception that Democrats don’t have a message.
“Donald Trump had a simplistic message,” Matthews said. “But, he provided no details, and he has no policies. No plans.”
Democrats by contrast, Matthews said, are policy wonks because they are issue driven, but still need to use those issues to connect with voters on an emotional level instead of coming across like they have all the answers and disdain for the other side.
“We have to tell a story that reaches peoples’ gut,” Matthews said. “That talks about them, not about us. Not we’re the party with all the solutions. We’re the party that is listening to you and understands your concerns, your problems, your challenges, and we’ll talk with you about solutions.”
If Democrats can do that, Matthews said, they can pull together the entire Democratic coalition and work together to accomplish their goals.
“We have common enemies in 2020,” Matthews said. “We want to defeat Trump. We want to defeat Hogan.”