Josh Kurtz: Four Corners

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to meet the campaign manager for Anthony Brown: Dean Smith.

What? Who?

Dean Smith. You know, the legendary former coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team. The guy who perfected the Four Corners offense, designed to sit on a lead and keep the other team from getting their hands on the ball.

A pretty good metaphor for the Brown campaign, no?

Under Smith, in the days before the shot clock was introduced to college basketball, it was a pretty good strategy – especially when Phil Ford was handling the ball.

But is it an effective campaign strategy?

It worked pretty well in the Democratic primary. Brown went in with distinct structural advantages and did nothing to squander them.

In his ads and in the few candidate debates, he played it safe, talking about his military service, his leadership qualities, and all the good that was accomplished while he served as lieutenant governor under Martin O’Malley. Let the other candidates squawk about the botched health care exchange or the chaos at the Baltimore city jail. Brown would say, we’ve done well and we can do better. And his opponents – as exasperated as any Tar Heels foe trying to come from behind against the Four Corners – barely laid a scratch on him.

Now Brown is employing the same strategy in his general election campaign against Republican Larry Hogan. There’s little public evidence that a Brown campaign actually exists, even though it’s staying in touch with party activists behind the scenes. He’s all but ignoring Hogan. And he has the same structural advantages that he did in the primary – if not more.

But is it working?

A recent statewide poll that was shared with me the other day, which was not conducted for either of the candidates for governor, showed Brown with a 46 percent to 40 percent lead over Hogan. The survey was taken by a highly reputable D.C.-based pollster who has vast experience querying Maryland voters.

So, a 6-point lead. Not time to hit the panic button, if you’re a Democrat. But nothing to be too comfortable about, either.

Could Brown lose? It’s hard to see at this point.

But it’s probably fair to say that the ghost of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend hangs heavy over the Brown campaign – and if you’re a Brown supporter, that’s a good thing. It means Brown strategists – and several members of his kitchen cabinet were part of Townsend’s as well – are determined to avoid the same mistakes and sense of complacency that doomed KKT when she was trying to advance from lieutenant governor to governor back in 2002.

Twelve years ago, on the eve of the summer Maryland Association of Counties conference, I wrote a column for The Gazette newspapers called “The Trouble With Kathleen.” I wrote about her candidacy’s many flaws, including the utter dysfunction of her talented but poorly organized campaign team.

One day before the start of the 2014 MACo conference, it would be unfair – and plain wrong – to write the same about Brown’s campaign. While it appeared top-heavy early in the primary cycle – like many a frontrunner’s campaign – his team has proven to be strategic, nimble and largely drama-free. These operatives guided him skillfully through the primary, so who’s to say they can’t do the same in the general election?

But – and I apologize for mixing metaphors here, going from NCAA basketball to a sit-com that’s overrated and over-cited as a cultural touchstone – there’s a danger in running a “Seinfeld”-like campaign, one that appears to be about nothing. Because how do you connect with and motivate the electorate that way? It invites criticisms that the candidate is nothing but an empty vessel.

Sure, Brown and his surrogates will talk about O’Malley’s successes, and a Republican like Hogan is always a convenient bogeyman in a Democratic state like Maryland.

But make no mistake: Hogan’s campaign is about something. If you’re sick of high taxes and profligate spending and government regulations – and plenty of people are – if you’re tired of seeing rights and state programs being extended to gays and lesbians and undocumented immigrants – and plenty of people, unfortunately, are – then Hogan’s campaign is speaking to you, even though he is largely ignoring social issues. So what Democrats may encounter on the campaign trail – in Maryland and elsewhere – is an intensity gap.

Additionally, it’s a six-year itch election nationally – the sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, which means potential political peril for Democrats everywhere. The U.S. Senate is in grave danger of flipping to Republicans this fall, and the GOP will undoubtedly pick up a few House seats as well.

But are the ingredients in place for a wave election, the way 2010 was? The evidence, at this stage, is inconclusive. Often the first signs of a political wave are only visible a few weeks before Election Day. And no matter what, the Maryland gubernatorial election is not going to be a high priority for the national GOP. A surprising number of Republican governors are playing defense this year, and retaining governorships in Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Kansas is a lot more important to the national party than a long shot like Maryland. So Hogan can’t count on a lot of outside help at this point.

If Brown falters, if a national Republican wave materializes, is Hogan capable of capitalizing? Hogan is a good guy – he’s a lot more “real” and rooted in reality than the man he’s so closely associated with, Bob Ehrlich.

But he’s no Bob Ehrlich. That may be part of Hogan’s appeal – the fact that he isn’t a slick and lifelong politician.

Yet that’s what made Ehrlich so formidable in 2002. He had been in public office for 16 years when he was elected governor, and had been groomed by local, state and national GOP leaders for years. He was the Baltimore region’s great hope after eight years of Parris Glendening as governor. His flaws, which became apparent once he’d served as governor for a while, weren’t yet evident.

To win, Ehrlich needed Townsend’s campaign to falter, for Glendening’s popularity to plunge, and for a pro-GOP sentiment to take hold nationally. But his campaign was built to take advantage of those conditions once they materialized. Hogan’s, at least at this stage, doesn’t appear to be ready if a Democratic disaster materializes.

The recent poll I referenced the other day showed O’Malley’s numbers underwater in Baltimore County. But that doesn’t put him anywhere near Glendening in ’02 territory. Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are bigger Democratic strongholds than they’ve ever been, and Charles and Howard counties, even with a competitive county executive election under way in the latter, are becoming so.

Which doesn’t mean that Anthony Brown should rely solely on the Four Corners offense in the weeks ahead. Remember, Phil Ford had prolific scorers like Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Mike O’Koren on his side.

POSTSCRIPT: Del. Pat McDonough (R) called the other day about my column last week on the National Labor College in Silver Spring. He insisted that his opposition to the sale of the college to the Amalgamated Transit Union, which required state approval, is simply rooted in his opposition to deals that cost the state money – and not because he fears the site will be used to house immigrant children from Central America. In fact, McDonough says he may introduce legislation to prevent deals like this from going through.

What’s clear is that my column pulled a couple of layers off the onion of a very complex deal with myriad implications – but that there are many more layers there.    

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.