Ben Jealous' best hope, if he has any, is to play rope-a-dope

Over lunch in Lexington Market, a supporter of Democrat Ben Jealous in the Maryland gubernatorial campaign said: “Nobody pays attention to November elections until after Labor Day.” I agreed: That bit of conventional wisdom is true. In most years. But not this one.

Donald Trump is president, and that alone heightened interest in the 2018 midterms, starting on the day he was elected. A combination of polling, punditry and wishful thinking shows Democratic voters eager to bring some balance and sanity to national politics by at least regaining a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, with his incessant tweets, Trump keeps himself in the news every day, and several times a day. Add the daily, even hourly, reports about indictments and convictions stemming from investigations of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and you have a steady rain of news about politics. It takes effort to avoid getting drenched by it.

So I don’t buy the claim that voters never think about elections until after the first Monday in September. These times, they are not normal.

Which might be why Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, his campaign flush with cash, and the Republican Governors’ Association already have spent a big chunk of change on commercials. Over the summer, Hogan and the RGA ensured that just about anyone with a television in Maryland caught at least a glimpse of either a pro-Hogan or anti-Jealous commercial.

So far, Jealous has been out-punched badly by Hogan and the Republicans.

“If it weren't for the Hogan commercials talking about the Democratic candidate, we might not know that there really is one,” cracked someone who goes by Charles F. Kane on Twitter.

The TV commercials portray Hogan as a swell guy responsible for a Reaganesque “morning in Maryland” after a downpour of taxes — literally, including the disingenuously named “rain tax” — during the O’Malley years. By contrast, the RGA ads portray Jealous as a wild-eyed “socialist” who would destroy the Maryland economy and leave every man, woman and child living in tents.

So the Republican came out swinging while the Democrat was still in his corner.

Hogan was already ahead of Jealous in almost every respect. He is better known, for one thing, by virtue of his office and his public bout with cancer, and he’s scored high approval ratings ever since he moved into the governor’s mansion. In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, Hogan has managed to poll extraordinarily well across party lines, and keeping his distance from Trump is a major reason.

Just last week, the governor joined the two top Democratic leaders in the General Assembly, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, in announcing (more like celebrating) the stabilization of the state’s health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. Hogan, Busch and Miller said approval of a federal waiver should prevent massive rate hikes and save coverage for about 250,000 Marylanders. That kind of bipartisan accomplishment, in the face of Trump’s sabotage of the ACA, bolsters Hogan’s image as a pragmatist willing to work with Democrats. That’s probably his most appealing quality and the toughest aspect of Hogan to counter as Jealous campaigns against him.

So, by most measures, Hogan is well ahead of Jealous, leading a lot of Democrats — those who refuse to cross party lines and vote for the Republican — to wonder what’s going on with the Jealous campaign. When are we going to see it?

Spokesmen for both Jealous and the Maryland Democratic Party say their candidate can win with a strong ground game — some 60 field organizers who assemble teams of volunteers to knock on doors and raise voter turnout all over the state. There are 2.1 million Democrats eligible to vote in Maryland and another 416,000 independents. If Jealous can get a million votes, he could upset Hogan. That’s how Martin O’Malley won two terms — great organizing in every county, fully exploiting the Democratic advantage.

The Jealous agenda is appealingly progressive — free college tuition, single-payer health-care-for-all — which sounds great but will look like pie-in-the-sky without smart and detailed messaging, even in places where you’d expect a liberal to succeed.

And none of this works unless Jealous can get an army of young Democrats to work their butts off for him between now and November. They have to get their peers to vote, too.

If Jealous has any advantage, it’s that he’s the underdog. He’s up against an incumbent with close to $10 million to spend on re-election — a huge advantage, according to the most recent reports — and Hogan has out-punched him all summer with commercials.

Some think this campaign is over already. But I’ll offer a hedge: Maybe Jealous is playing rope-a-dope, allowing the Republicans to pummel him, hoping Hogan exhausts all his millions and looks heavy-handed in the process, leaving the Democrat with an opportunity for a big finish.

I have to throw that in. After all, it ain’t Labor Day yet.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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