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Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: Can the Democratic Frontrunners Withstand the Inevitable GOP Attacks?

Are the Democratic candidates for governor ready for the inevitable Republican attacks? Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

October surprises are those bombshells that occur late in a general election campaign and can trip up a candidate at a time when there isn’t any margin for error. Often enough, but not always, those nuggets of damaging information emerge because they’ve been unearthed and amplified by a candidate’s opponent.

So let’s think ahead to hypothetical general election campaigns involving each of the three Democratic frontrunners for governor, and let’s think about what information Republicans — especially the team around the establishment favorite in the GOP primary, former Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz — may try to exploit in the weeks ahead:

  • When he was in college, Tom Perez’s roommate briefly dated a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, and there is a picture of young Tom decked out in a Che Guevara beret, with his arm around this woman at boozy dorm party.
  • Wes Moore said he had oatmeal for breakfast on the morning of Oct. 23, 1997, but there’s incontrovertible evidence that he in fact had a strawberry Pop-Tart.
  • Peter Franchot has flip-flopped over the years on issues like the Intercounty Connector highway, gambling, and energy policy.

Oh wait, the Franchot items are actually facts. The items about Moore and Perez are fictional, so far as we know, but emblematic of the type of attacks that Republicans are almost certain to throw at them. And then there’s this: Neither Franchot nor Perez nor Moore grew up in Maryland, so surely they aren’t one of us (never mind that Schulz grew up in Michigan).

All this is to say the Democrats better prepare now for the attacks that are sure to come — probably well before October. And say this for Schulz and her team: They are very transparent about the kind of campaign they are going to run. Her advisers include some of the architects of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s resounding reelection campaign of 2018, and some go back to Hogan’s 2014 campaign. You can take it to the bank that they’ll be using the very same playbook they used against Ben Jealous in 2018.

This recent Schulz ad, which is pretty effective, is going to be recycled in some form no matter who the Democrats nominate. She will boil the election down to taxes, spending, crime, and parents’ rights — whatever the hell that is. But then there are the specific attacks that they’re sure to level against the various Democrats.

With Perez, the attack line will be that he is too radical — a Beltway Insider, an O’Malley retread, endorsed by Nancy Pelosi. Remember the 43 O’Malley tax increases that Hogan so effectively referenced in 2014 and continues to use as an applause line to this minute? Well, surely Perez, as O’Malley’s Labor secretary, had a hand in some of them, somehow.

If Moore is the nominee, then the Republicans are going to question the veracity of everything he says about his origin story, and his history in business and philanthropy. And can you imagine the emotional pop of a TV ad featuring the family of the Baltimore County police officer murdered by “the other” Wes Moore, complaining about Wes Moore the candidate?

The Moore campaign likes to argue that the candidate has weathered the storm over the suggestion that he has embellished his resume. Even after the big CNN report about Moore’s history came out, they note, Moore has continued to raise money swiftly, rack up endorsements, and make gains in the polls.

But this is a Democratic primary we’re talking about. There have been some sotto voce attacks on Moore from his fellow Democrats, to be sure. But the doubts will turn into fully loaded grenades in the hands of the Republicans and their media boosters, like Fox 45 in Baltimore.

As for Franchot, if he becomes the Democratic nominee, Republicans will have a different kind of field day. At a minimum, they will be able to point out inconsistencies in his public positions through the years.

How do you attack a Democrat who’s been so good to Larry Hogan for so long? Schulz’s team will surely find something. They’ll be able to plumb Franchot’s 20-year voting record in the House of Delegates and conclude, despite his fondest wish to be known as a common-sense fiscal conservative, that he was, once upon a time, a genuine liberal.

Of course, if he becomes the Democratic nominee, Franchot may have to worry more about incoming from his own side than attacks from the GOP, or at least a kind of benign neglect. Remember how awkward the relationship was between Jealous and old line party leaders four years ago? It’s not going to be much better with Franchot. Different, yes, because party leaders’ distaste for Franchot comes from 3 1/2 decades of watching him shape-shift and showboat, whereas they didn’t like Jealous because he was a left-wing outsider. But it’s still possible that several party leaders and progressives sit on their hands if Franchot wins the Democratic primary.

It’s easy enough to see the Democratic frontrunners’ weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities heading into a possible general election matchup with Kelly Schulz (which, of course, may not happen, if Dan Cox and Donald Trump get their way). Are the Democrats ready for the inevitable fusillade of attacks? And who is the strongest Democrat right now in the primary?

Franchot benefits from being in statewide office for so long. He has an unusual coalition of backers and significant pockets of support in parts of the state where Democrats don’t always go. He probably also has deeper support in places that would surprise some people, like Prince George’s County, and a unique ability to attract media attention on certain issues, like the gas tax.

On the other hand, Franchot hasn’t moved in polls for a long time now. He’s well known, sure. But he hasn’t sealed the deal. Will the roughly one-third of Democrats who appear to be undecided in the primary give him a second (or third or fourth) look? Or has he truly hit his ceiling?

Perez, who seems to have some momentum right now, will have a good old-fashioned ground game, courtesy of the unions that are spending so heavily to elect him. They’re also providing him an air game in the Baltimore TV market. Perez has a decent cross-section of support as well, and is broadly acceptable to huge swaths of the Democratic electorate. Can he expand his coalition to Democrats who have voted for Hogan?

Moore entered the race with so much potential, and he’s clearly fulfilled some of it. He’s raised a lot of money, created a buzz, and won a lot of endorsements from a wide coalition of insiders and influencers. But fairly or not, we keep waiting for him to truly ignite. That hasn’t quite happened, and so he’ll have to slug it out, vote for vote, with the other frontrunners, appealing to everyday voters and trying to assuage some party stalwarts’ doubts.

Finally, a word about a fourth Democratic candidate, John King. The former U.S. Education secretary has impressed just about everybody he’s encountered on the campaign trail. More than any of his opponents, he has offered the most consistently cohesive and progressive vision for governing Maryland. He’s starting to rack up some endorsements, and he’s been competitive on the fundraising front.

That said, we’ve been skeptical from the jump that, within this crowded and talented field, he has a path to victory, and we haven’t seen much to change the position. At some point, King may have to ask himself: Who am I helping and hurting in this primary race?

Right now, the dynamic in the gubernatorial primary is a little reminiscent of the 2002 Democratic primary in the 8th congressional district. That was a long time ago. But Moore is a little like Mark Shriver, a solid, charismatic, accomplished guy with an aura who people wanted to be around, while Perez is like Chris Van Hollen, a super-smart public servant and policy wonk with impressive credentials.

In studious Montgomery County that year, Van Hollen’s profile was enough to put him over the top in an upset, barely. But the statewide Democratic electorate is a little different, so the comparisons may not fully apply.

Either way, if this is the second coming of 2002, who does that make Franchot? Deborah Vollmer? Connie Morella?

One thing is clear: Republicans will be ready to pounce as soon as Democrats have a nominee. Four years ago, Ben Jealous wasn’t ready. Are the Democrats this time?