Analysis: Race for Governor Gets Serious and Voters Start to Pay Attention

Former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) has finally weighed in, casting his lot with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III. State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D) is airing an ad that is getting national attention because it shows him kissing his husband. The other candidates are ramping up their advertising, issuing policy proclamations, jabbing at each other, analyzing the latest polls, and appearing in illuminating profiles in the state’s two leading daily newspapers. The Democratic gubernatorial primary has just turned serious – serious as a heart attack. Small wonder, with early voting beginning next Thursday and the primary just 18 days away. 

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s campaign took to social media Thursday to mock former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s endorsement of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. 

Every development in the seven-candidate race seems potentially significant now. O’Malley’s endorsement of Baker certainly was. While it was not altogether surprising – O’Malley expressed admiration for Baker several months ago, and he’s just one more member of the state Democratic establishment lining up behind the executive’s campaign – it will carry weight in the primary. Even though Republicans will sneer, O’Malley remains the gold standard for many Maryland Democrats of what a progressive governor can accomplish. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), the man Democrats desperately hope to defeat, wasted no time making fun of the endorsement. He took to Twitter minutes after O’Malley’s choice went public, posting a picture of O’Malley on horseback, wearing a Revolutionary War outfit – a Dukakis-in-the-tank moment that the former governor may now regret. “The Cavalry Is Coming (With Higher Taxes!),” Hogan tweeted, gleefully. “Martin O’Malley might be endorsing Rushern Baker today, but the fact is any of these candidates running represent a third O’Malley term in office. Pretty sure Marylanders do not want to head back in that direction.” Hogan can afford the levity. The Washington Post-University of Maryland Poll released earlier this week found his job approval ratings still in the stratosphere, and he did very well in the head-to-head matchups with his potential challengers. But Hogan’s election, and the electorate’s loathing of O’Malley, was of a moment in 2014. The anti-O’Malley argument may not be as salient now as it was four years ago. Of course, national Republicans are still campaigning against Jimmy Carter, so we can expect the GOP attacks on O’Malley to continue. The poll’s biggest revelation was that Hogan, for all his personal popularity, is not perfectly aligned with Maryland’s Democratic electorate on the issues. Whether the Democrats will be able to exploit this in the general election remains an open question. Whatever the answer, the odds are Hogan won’t be laughing too much longer. The Democrats will soon have a nominee, and the polls are likely to grow closer as summer turns to fall. This doesn’t mean Hogan is going to lose. Even in a Democratic state in a Democratic year, that’s a tough bet to make right now. The Democratic nominee, whomever he or she may be, will start the general election broke and will have an awful lot to prove. Hogan continues to make precious few mistakes and there are some Democratic voters across the state who seem very comfortable with the Republican governor. But throughout the Democratic primary, the attacks on Hogan, even when they’ve been delivered in unison, have been diffuse. They’ll be a little more targeted, and land a little harder, when there’s just a single Democrat in the race. Then the question for Hogan is how long he’ll be able to keep his affable veneer, and how he responds. Who will win the Democratic nomination? The frontrunners by now are well-established: Baker and former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous. The Post poll had Jealous slightly ahead of Baker, though within the margin of error. Another less-publicized poll taken in the same timeframe, for a super PAC supporting Jealous, showed the two tied. Both polls had a high level of undecided voters – 39 percent in the Post survey and 34 percent in the poll taken for the Together We Rise super PAC. How do those voters move and what will move them? And could we be witnessing a Madaleno moment? First, the Post poll showed Madaleno running stronger against Hogan than any other Democrat in a hypothetical general election – though it’s all relative. He trailed by 10 points, compared to 12-point deficits for Jealous and Baker. That’s not a great place for any Democrat to be, and Madaleno’s showing compared to the other two was within the margin of error. Still, for Madaleno, and for voters just tuning in, it’s a conversation starter – and a validation of Madaleno’s claim that he has the best chance of beating Hogan in November (a claim that several other Democratic contenders are making as well). Then, there’s the ad – and the kiss. Forget the kiss for a moment – the ad was clever and cute, featuring gentle name-calling against President Trump, hitting the points that Democrats loathe about the president, briefly outlining Madaleno’s legislative record. The ad is airing on “Fox and Friends” in the Washington, D.C., market – meaning few prime Democrats from Maryland will be watching. Then again, maybe Trump will be – unless he’s flipping the channel during the commercials to “Morning Joe,” to hate on Mika. Even if they’re not watching it directly (the ad is also airing in Montgomery County on CNN and MSNBC), Democratic voters by now know about the ad. They know it needles Trump. And they know about the history-making kiss between Madaleno and his husband, Mark Hodge – the first kiss, evidently, between a gay candidate and his or her partner in a TV ad. And you know something? It was a long kiss. Not Al and Tipper Gore long (yuck), but long enough. Democrats who know Madaleno, or have heard him speak, like him (and a couple of his opponents praised him during the latest televised candidate forum – possibly a not-so-subtle pitch to his voters). They’ve just wondered about his viability. During the 1978 Democratic primary for governor, a late poll in The Baltimore Sun suggested that Harry R. Hughes was more viable than most political professionals had assumed. He wound up winning – and serving two terms. Perhaps history can repeat itself. And the Washington Capitals just won the Stanley Cup. Madaleno is a long-suffering fan – not a Johnny-Come-Lately rooting for the Caps for political expediency. Perhaps there is an omen there as well. But he’s still mired in single digits in the latest primary polls. Will any other Democrat enter the top tier of candidates? Women are doing well in Democratic primaries all over the country. But in Maryland, former Montgomery County councilwoman Valerie L. Ervin was thrust into the top spot less than a month ago, and does not appear to have a robust, full-blown operation. And former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah – in many ways the most interesting and inspiring of the Democrats – cannot shake questions about her residency and eligibility to serve. Then there’s lawyer James L. Shea. He’s got enough campaign cash to be on TV steadily between now and primary day. He’s got a running mate with deep roots in Baltimore City, whose pals – an amalgam of African-American up-and-comers – just endorsed the ticket. Who knows? Maybe Shea is the tortoise in this race. Which brings us back to the frontrunners, Jealous and Baker. With unions and progressive groups behind him, and as the strong favorite of African-American voters in and around Baltimore, Jealous has a solid, unshakable base. Whether it’s big enough depends on how the other candidates do. The temptation is to label Baker the second coming of Anthony Brown. Both are African-American men of the same generation from Prince George’s County with huge amounts of support from the party establishment. But that diminishes Baker’s work as county executive, his willingness to fight unpopular battles, and his winning personality – ingredients Brown, serving as O’Malley’s lieutenant governor when he was upset by Hogan in 2014, lacked. Baker used the O’Malley endorsement, in front of the State House in Annapolis Thursday afternoon, to release a 10-point plan to improve the state’s education system. He hit Hogan’s record as steward of the public schools. “Education experts say that our system is ‘adequate,’” Baker said in a statement. “I think I can speak for every parent in Maryland when I say ‘adequate’ is not ‘acceptable’ when we’re talking about our children.” But just a couple of hours after the O’Malley-Baker news conference, dozens of Prince George’s County teachers descended on Upper Marlboro, crowding into a meeting of the county school board, which Baker appointed. There, they demanded raises – and insisted that Kevin Maxwell, the school district’s CEO who is departing under a cloud of scandal and controversy, not be given a lucrative severance package. Which serves as a reminder of why several Hogan advisers are itching to get into a debate with Baker over education.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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