Laslo Boyd – The Governor’s Race: Conventional Wisdom and Political Reality

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By: Laslo Boyd 

By any normal set of calculations, Anthony Brown should be elected governor of Maryland on November 4.

Think of all the things he has going for him. Voter registration favors Democrats by about a two-to-one margin. The party has totally dominated elections for the state’s highest office over the past half-century. The state’s 10-person Congressional delegation includes only one Republican and that won’t change this year. In presidential elections, Maryland has been reliably blue for a long time.

Brown has two arguments that should seal the deal. He can keep reminding voters that he is the Democratic candidate. Additionally, he should draw a heavy turnout because he is running to become the first African-American governor of the state.

And if all that weren’t enough, Brown is facing a Republican Party that has done a poor job of recruiting candidates up and down the ballot and an opponent, Larry Hogan, who has none of the charm of the last Republican to win the top spot, Bob Ehrlich. Hogan campaigns in the style of a bull in a china shop. Moreover, he has the thinnest set of policy positions imaginable.

And, indeed, Brown may cruise to victory. But with a little more than a month to Election Day, there are some worrisome signs on the campaign trail. For one, it’s not looking like a good year for Democrats nationally. Although political ill winds don’t often make it to Maryland, it’s clear that President Obama’s low ranking in the polls is not going to help Democratic candidates and may indeed be a drag.

Perhaps more ominous for Brown’s chances, there are growing signs of “O’Malley fatigue” in many areas of Maryland. All two-term governors run the risk of wearing out their welcome with voters, and the current incumbent is no exception. Brown is running a campaign that relies heavily on the successes of the past eight years. In making that strategic decision, he has forgone any serious effort to distance himself from the parts of the O’Malley legacy that are unpopular with voters.

The most potent area of vulnerability involves the many taxes that have been raised by O’Malley’s administration. Supporters can rightly point to the significance of dealing with a lingering structural budget deficit and the courage of policy choices which continue supporting education, health and other social services.

Those arguments would carry greater political weight if the Maryland economy were booming. Last week gave a couple of vivid reminders that it is not. First, the state’s unemployment rate for the first time in recent memory exceeded the national rate. Once, heavy reliance on federal spending made many people see Maryland as “recession proof,” but now the state’s economy is being dragged down by sequestration and the national economy.

The most recent revenue estimates show how slowly the recovery here is going.  Whoever is elected in November will have as a first order of business figuring out where to make cuts in the budget. That reality poses a huge threat to the principle campaign themes of both Brown and Hogan. Brown is talking about increased spending in key areas such as pre-kindergarten expansion, and Hogan is talking about cutting taxes. Budget deficits make both those promises difficult to achieve.

Finally, Brown may need to take a close look at his own campaign if he expects to beat Hogan. His approach, a direct carry-over from how he won the nomination in June, has been to play it very safe. For the most part, he limits his appearances to friendly audiences. He has issued lots of position papers, but most of his stances are general, often vague.

To take an important example, he asserts a goal of achieving the best business climate in the nation here in Maryland. No one, not even his most avid supporters, would argue that Maryland is anywhere close to that rank currently. It’s hard to take such a sweeping goal seriously, which leaves voters to wonder what he will actually do as governor.

The campaign also seems to be squandering one of its best resources. Despite Howard County Executive Ken Ulman’s incredible popularity in his home jurisdiction, the Brown strategists haven’t seemed to figure out how to use him as a campaigner in other parts of the state. He is, after all, the only one in the race who actually has executive experience and has shown real skill as a campaigner.

There have been a couple of polls so far: one which showed Brown with a big lead and another, from Hogan’s camp, which showed the race as close. Leave aside the arguments about the methodology of the competing surveys; the truism remains that you should always be wary of private polls released by a candidate.

Nevertheless, the reality is that it’s still early. Lots of potential voters have not yet started paying attention. We also have no clear indicator of what turnout out will be.  The abysmal rate of voting in the June primaries should concern everyone. More people will turn out in November, but the numbers are still likely to be discouragingly low by historical standards.

Next week, the two candidates hold their first of three televised debates. Look for more of a slugfest than a civics lesson. Brown and Hogan are likely merely to repeat talking points from their television ads, which will not elevate the level of discourse. Both candidates seem singularly focused on why the other guy shouldn’t be elected. 

My own view is that Larry Hogan has little or no idea why he is running and would make a dreadful governor. If Anthony Brown wants the office, it’s time for him to start telling voters why they should choose him, not just why Hogan is the wrong candidate.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.