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Shank played his hand brilliantly in defeating Munson

September 19, 2010

Those familiar with the phrase, "It was quiet - too quiet" already understand what happened in Del. Christopher B. Shank's unseating of incumbent state Sen. Donald F. Munson.

Shank's hand, brilliantly played, was this: Tap in to anti-establishment anger, steer the debate away from real issues and pray for low turnout. When at midday, voter turnout in Boonsboro was only 10 percent, Shank had to like his chances.

Shank's win ranks perhaps as the greatest upset in Washington County politics, or at least as far back as anyone can remember. In a solidly conservative district, Munson is a solid conservative. If Shank was able - and apparently he was - to convince Washington County Republicans that Munson is a liberal, then he will be able to convince the average voter that Louis XIV was Chinese.

Munson had the backing of the National Rifle Association and Right to Life groups. He was the favorite of U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and most of Washington County's important business members. You don't win those endorsements by being Nancy Pelosi.

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So Shank framed the debate on the one minor chink in Munson's conservative armor - immigration. Even that was a tenuous reed based on some tangled vote that Munson later said he regretted.

Shank could not make this election about his own record in Annapolis because he doesn't have one that extends beyond mere talk. Munson, by contrast, had a den filled with trophies on the wall, representing real projects and laws favorable to Washington County.

But this is a year voters do not want to be troubled with meat and potatoes, they want gasoline - at least about 20 percent of them nationwide do not, if polls can be believed. Shank needed this angry core, but had to limit voter interest beyond it. So every time this race was in danger of becoming interesting, Shank wisely backpedaled. An emotional race with high voter turnout was not his friend.

Consequently, it's hard to think that Munson and his supporters did not become complacent. His dark, "I don't intend to lose" statement at a recent candidate forum might have been taken literally by people who did not understand that, for the first time in his political career, Munson was being outworked and outhustled. Who could have predicted that Munson would receive fewer votes than a fifth-place Washington County Commissioners candidate?

Essentially, Munson failed to realize what many other established Republicans have failed to realize this fall - they cannot run these races as if they are incumbents. The traditional incumbent strategy (don't make waves, don't debate, don't give your opponent the time of day) is not working in this political climate.

As an old political friend used to say, "Fat possums travel at night." To an ultraconservative challenger running against an established Republican incumbent, that means turning conventional wisdom on its head. Let the tea party constituency do its work, and other than that, don't say or do anything to draw attention to yourself. That's classic incumbent strategy. Count on your base and don't give anyone else reason to vote against you.

A microcosm of this race could be found in what became a relatively minor debate flap. By all appearances, Shank was not angling for a debate. The risk that Munson would hammer home the very real differences in their effectiveness and clout in Annapolis probably was too great. But when a debate was publicly proposed, Shank waited for Munson to blink - which he did, refusing to participate. This gave Shank the opening to tell voters that he was all for a debate, anywhere, anytime. It appeared to be Munson who was ashamed of his record.

Again, traditional incumbent strategy backfired and again, Shank played it to perfection.

In one sense, Shank will discover that winning the election was the easy part. In the House of Delegates, he had three other Washington County colleagues who could do the heavy lifting while he was off throwing bombs at the Democratic leadership.

In the Senate, he will be on an island. If his track record does not improve over his performance in the House, the spotlight upon him will be quite hot indeed.

But Shank always has enjoyed spotlights. If he can convince voters that Munson is a liberal and that black is white and down is up, he might be able to use the seat to his advantage by convincing the electorate that failure is some high, Fellini-like art form to be rewarded with re-elections as far as the eye can see. That Shank has promised tea party brethren he is not a "career politician" is of no matter. Bartlett did the same thing 20 years ago and no one has batted an eye since.

Shank's best chance - and Washington County's, when it comes right down to it - is if former Gov. Robert Ehrlich wins back his old seat. A Republican governor might be able to toss a few bones in Shank's direction.

Otherwise, Shank will join state Sen. Alex X. Mooney on the back bench of the Senate and become what Mooney has become - an increasingly irrelevant noisemaker whose act became stale after his first term in office. That would leave them both sitting there, killing time until Bartlett leaves the scene, giving them a chance to compete for a seat that would further cement their positions as the career politicians they claim not to be.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at http://www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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