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Josh Kurtz: The Big Enchilada in the Democratic Primary for Governor Is…

Sketch of Baltimore County via Getty Images.

In a 10-candidate primary, every inch matters.

And every candidate is consequential: Even if they get only 1%, a last-place finisher’s vote total is significant, because it’s coming out of other candidates’ hides.

Polls have suggested that there are four leading Democratic candidates for governor – Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and author and former foundation CEO Wes Moore. With 3 1/2 months left until early voting (unless there’s another primary delay), there could still be a breakout candidate or two.

In this Democratic primary, it’s widely assumed that the big prizes are Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Baltimore City, in that order. Prince George’s and Montgomery have the most enrolled Democrats and pretty high voter turnout levels in primaries. And the city is the city – a Democratic stronghold not to be ignored.

But what about Baltimore County?

The county is traditionally the battleground in gubernatorial general elections, if not quite the bellwether. But guess what – it could also play an outsized role in this year’s primary.

In Prince George’s County, Baker is ahead in his home turf and Moore has lots of potential, based on endorsements from County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks and State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy and the fact that he’s already on the air there. Several other Democrats are also making a play for Prince George’s votes.

Yet this may not quite be the “home game” for Baker that everyone imagines it is. Yes, he was on the countywide ballot in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 and then ran for governor in 2018. But as the sitting county executive four years ago he got just 49.9% of the vote in the the Democratic primary for governor against a weaker slate of opponents than he has now. With fewer resources than most of his opponents, Baker is feeling compelled to go door-to-door in his home county. So chances are his vote percentage there declines in the July 19 primary relative to 2018 – though he should finish first.

Montgomery County is a clusterf—, and just about every candidate under the sun is from there. We believe Perez, who once served on the County Council, is in the lead, followed by Franchot, who represented the county in the House of Delegates for 20 years. Former Attorney General Doug Gansler and former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr., live in the county and could get significant chunks of the vote there. Baker and Moore benefit from their running mates – Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro and former Montgomery Del. Aruna Miller, respectively – and Baker as county executive was frequently on local TV and in The Washington Post.

In the city, you’d expect Moore to be ahead, and he probably is. But he needs to run up a big score, and he may not be there yet. Franchot and Perez have pockets of support there – Perez is helped by his labor support and his running mate, former City Councilmember Shannon Sneed, who racked up 40,000 votes as a candidate for city council president two years ago. And Baker, by his words and deeds, has indicated that the city is a big part of his strategy.

And Baltimore County? You don’t hear much about the county in the context of the Democratic primary. But it feels, for now, at least, like it’s Peter Franchot’s firewall.

According to some data we’ve seen, and in the opinion of several political professionals, if the primary were today, Franchot would get at least 40% of the vote there. That’s big. He’s probably doing better in Baltimore County than Baker is in Prince George’s. And if he gets close to 50% in the county, the primary is probably over.

Franchot has spent years courting Baltimore County, particularly the lunch pail Democrats in the eastern part of the county. His performative crusades on school air conditioning and heating and his fights with the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) have earned him a loyal following in key corners of the county. He was attending Dundalk Fourth of July parades before many of the candidates could even find Dundalk on the map.

And yet, with Franchot’s obvious advantages in Baltimore County, there’s room for other candidates to make inroads. Moore is airing ads in the Baltimore market and will have some obvious pockets of support – and not just in Black neighborhoods. This will be a real test of his crossover appeal. He’s got endorsements from former county executives and County Council Chair Julian Jones, and the backing of the powerful Caves Valley developers.

Perez has some Towson-area liberals in his corner, and his union support should be helpful. While County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D) is likely to remain neutral in the primary, some of his top advisers are friends and fans of Perez. And one of Perez’s top campaign strategists, Tucker Cavanagh, is an old Baltimore County hand who was Johnny O’s campaign manager in 2018.

Former Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, if she had started campaigning far earlier, would have had tremendous potential in Baltimore County. She could still catch a spark under the right circumstances, especially if the primary is delayed again.

And Baker now seems to want to talk about crime and punishment a lot – a clear play for Baltimore County votes.

So pay attention to Baltimore County in the months ahead as this primary develops. But with so little room for error in this 10-candidate race, don’t ignore anyplace else, either.


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Josh Kurtz: The Big Enchilada in the Democratic Primary for Governor Is…