Baltimore bridge collapse presents Wes Moore with 2028 opening — and traps

BALTIMORE — Gov. Wes Moore‘s (D-MD) initial response to the deadly Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore has raised his national profile as a possible 2028 Democratic presidential candidate.

But reopening the Port of Baltimore, reconstructing the bridge, and countering the economic consequences will test the first-term governor’s leadership, now in the national spotlight.

A crisis can be, for lack of a better word, an opportunity for possible presidential candidates to receive national attention, according to David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

Gov. Wes Moore (D-MD) speaks on the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Dundalk, Maryland. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Moore, 45, appeared alongside President Joe Biden Friday in Baltimore as the president surveilled the Francis Scott Key Bridge cleanup effort, joining Biden at an operational briefing from the Army Corps of Engineers and introducing him at their afternoon remarks.

“We are here together in partnership today. In everything, we’re thinking of the six victims of the Key Bridge collapse and their families. They are in our hearts, our thoughts, and our prayers,” he said, before delivering the same message in Spanish.

“Our strength is not preordained. Owners have spent weeks, months, and years focusing on what unites us,” Moore continued, echoing familiar themes Biden frequently espouses on the campaign trail. “Now, I know our state’s largest city is being tested right now, but Baltimore has been tested before. We get knocked down, we stand back up, and we dust ourselves off, and we move forward. That is what we do.”

But although Moore hosting the president in Baltimore on Friday to discuss the bridge and the repercussions of its collapse provided a split screen between the Democratic Party’s present in Biden and its prospective future in Moore, crises also come with responsibilities, Karol told the Washington Examiner.

“Being empathetic and seeming to be in charge in the moment of the crisis is one thing, but you know, we’ll see what happens with the construction,” Karol said. “The bridge, when it was originally built, it took five years. And we don’t have a good recent track record in the United States of rapid construction, whether it’s the public or the private sectors.”

While Moore, first elected in 2022 and the country’s only incumbent black governor, has a friend in Biden, the president’s pledge that the federal government will pay for the bridge’s “entire” reconstruction is “not assured,” per Karol. Biden has already approved $60 million in federal emergency funding for Maryland, but though the port is expected to reopen by the end of this month, its closure is estimated to be costing $15 million a day and is affecting more than 8,000 jobs.

Moore, a Rhodes scholar, Army veteran, businessman, and even a young adult novelist, has been considered a Democratic rising star “for a long time,” according to Karol.

“He was Oprah [Winfrey]‘s protege and he wrote several books and he used to appear on her program and she helped raise money for him in 2022,” Karol said. “Even before this bridge collapse, he’s been on MSNBC and he’s traveled around the country and he has been visible for a governor from a relatively small state.”

Gov. Wes Moore (D-MD), left, and President Joe Biden walk to deliver remarks after an operational briefing on the response and recovery efforts of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Dundalk, Maryland. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

“I think he has national ambitions, and why shouldn’t he?” he added. “The first time he ran, he won, running against serious competitors. I mean, Tom Perez was the chair of the [Democratic National Committee] and had been in [former President Barack] Obama‘s Cabinet.”

But one Maryland Republican strategist underscored how being a so-called rising star also incorporates managing risks and expectations, citing Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), whose highly anticipated 2024 Republican primary campaign imploded under the pressure, and, to a lesser extent, Sen. Katie Britt (R-AL), whose State of the Union address rebuttal was satirized on by Saturday Night Live.

“It’s more about mitigating the downside,” the strategist told the Washington Examiner. “There are a lot of people who want to be on that Democratic bench. It’s a very competitive space, so I think it’s about avoiding traps and pitfalls.

“Any time you’re in unified government like he has in Maryland, you don’t want to get pulled so far to the Left that you get pulled out of the mainstream on issues and policies, and that’s obviously a danger,” he continued.

If Moore decides to announce a presidential bid in 2028, he will encounter competition not only from other, more high-profile Democratic governors, such as Govs. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), and Andy Beshear (D-KY), but also from other members of the party, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), according to Democratic strategist Stefan Hankin.

“I think the Democratic bench is impressive,” Hankin said. “We’re starting to see, finally, sort of the next generation taking over … [but] if you’ve been in the job a little bit longer, there’s more chance of getting elected.”

For Hankin, Moore should first focus on securing a second term as governor in 2026 before contemplating the White House.

“You also need to wait to see what’s going to happen this year, right?” he said. “It’s going to be a very different dynamic if you’re running after four years of [former President Donald] Trump than if you’re running after eight years of Biden, as a Democrat or a Republican.”

For Karol, it is “probably” more advantageous to Moore if Biden were to lose to Trump in this year’s general election because another four years of Biden’s administration is another four years that Vice President Kamala Harris has to “establish” herself as his successor.

The fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore is pictured Sunday, March 31, 2024, where divers assisted crews with the complicated and meticulous operation of removing steel and concrete. (AP Photos/Mike Pesoli)

The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed on March 26 after a Singapore-registered container ship, the Dali, lost power and collided with one of its supporting structures, killing at least two construction workers who were on the bridge mending potholes. Another four are presumed dead.

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“I think the state is still mourning,” Moore told MSNBC Friday morning. “We still have four souls that are unaccounted for, and we are all committed to making sure we can bring a sense of closure and comfort to these families who are living a nightmare.”

“We also know that we have seen a maritime disaster that’s unprecedented,” he said. “A ship that is literally the size of the Eiffel Tower and the weight of the Washington Monument that’s now sitting in the middle of the Patapsco River with a bridge, an iconic bridge, sitting on top of it and about 27,000 tons of wreckage that is now sitting in the water. But we also know that we’ve since seen a measure of resilience and a measure of collective resolve that has been inspiring by the people of this state.”

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