CRISFIELD — To most voters, the June 2014 primary election may seem a distant prospect, but to hundreds of political junkies who flocked to the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab & Clam Bake on Wednesday, it seemed as close as next week.
With 11 months to go before Democrats and Republicans choose their candidates for the November 2014 general election, virtually everyone who is considered a serious prospect as a statewide candidate made the trek to this Somerset County town more than three hours from Baltimore for an event that has become enshrined as a vital part of the state's political culture.
They were joined by thousands of others who came for the food, the camaraderie, the business networking and the music — along with a few hardy souls who said they actually like the blazing hot weather that typically greets July visitors to Crisfield. Temperatures climbed well into the 90s on the blacktop.
Fans of the event said they wouldn't miss it for the world.
Robert R. Neall, a former state legislator and Anne Arundel County executive, said he's been coming since the 1970s. He's not running for anything but said he returned to reconnect with old friends he sees just once a year.
"It's part of Maryland," he said. "It's what you do on a 98-degree afternoon in mid-July. You stand on a parking lot drinking warm beer."
Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican known for his no-holds-barred style, said Tawes is "one of the only events where you see Republicans, Democrats and independents all together socializing. If you're a politico, you need to be here. And it's always the hottest day of the year."
Because of a change in state election law, the festival's timing on the political calendar has been fundamentally altered. In the past, when the primary was held in September, office-seekers gathered here two months before the contest. This time, the festival came nearly a year before the primary — just as many politicians are announcing their plans for 2014.
Comptroller Peter Franchot, a well-entrenched Democrat who nonetheless worked the crowd as if he were in a close race, liked it better the old way. "They need to reschedule the primary so it's after Tawes and after the Fourth of July," he groused.
Whatever the timing, announced, all-but-announced and might-take-a-pass candidates were out in force.
By early afternoon, Salisbury Mayor James P. Ireton had acted as escort for Democratic gubernatorial prospects Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur and was waiting for Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the leader in early polls.
"It's absolutely my job," said the chief executive of the largest city near Crisfield. "One of these people is going to be the winner, and we want to make sure Salisbury's on their radar."
In a sign of the changing times, Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who announced her candidacy just hours before the event, campaigned alongside her wife, Deborah Mizeur.
"I have been to Tawes probably every year for the last decade. It's a rite of passage for Maryland. You come here to get sweaty and have Old Bay up to your elbows and have a cold beer," Heather Mizeur said.
On the Republican side of the gubernatorial race, Harford County Executive David R. Craig was showing off his newly unveiled running mate, Dorchester County's Del. Jeannie Haddaway, at their first Eastern Shore event since the announcement. Craig bragged that he had landed the best-qualified Republican candidate for lieutenant governor since 1994.
Admitting her Eastern Shore bias, Haddaway said attendance at Tawes is a must for aspiring office-holders.
"The history of this event is that everyone who's serious about a campaign — especially a statewide race — has to be here," she said.
Craig's Republican rivals could agree on that. Announced candidate Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County had a large presence, and volunteers in the effort to draft Charles County businessman Charles Lollar said he could announce a gubernatorial campaign as early as Monday. Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County commissioners, said he will announce his intentions Aug. 24.
Young, who made a show of force at last year's Tawes festival, was more restrained this year among increasing doubts that he will run for governor. He greeted the news of Lollar's plans with dismay.
"It concerns me that we're not smart enough to figure out we don't need a bloodbath in the primary," he said.
While some spent the afternoon playing the political angles, many of the estimated 4,000 attendees professed no interest in that aspect of the festival, staged each year by the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce in honor of the late governor to raise money for civic causes.
Patricia Lewis, wearing crab headgear with googly eyes, said she's been coming the past 12 years for the crabs, the clams and the music — turning the one-day event into a three-day weekend.
Her favorite part?
"Just meeting the people," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.