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Summer turns up heat on Howard County executive candidates

Unopposed in primary, Watson and Kittleman prepare for November contest

By Amanda Yeager, ayeager@tribune.com

10:44 AM EDT, June 28, 2014

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Like June bugs dropping at the first hint of summer's heat, the swarms of primary candidates in Howard County are gone. With each party's picks made, county Democrats and Republicans can unite behind their candidates and campaigns can refocus with just one opponent or set of opponents in mind.

But the two candidates running for the county's highest office have been locked in and focused for nine months already, campaigning but laying comparatively low until the primaries had run their course. Now, it's their turn for the spotlight.

With current County Executive Ken Ulman term-limited and on the ticket this November as the Democrats' candidate for lieutenant governor,Howard County voters have the choice between two new candidates, though neither is fresh-faced on the local political scene.

State Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican from West Friendship who has served in Annapolis for nearly a decade and on the County Council for a term and a half before that, is up against two-term Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat from Ellicott City who spent four years on the Board of Education before being elected to her current seat.

Some observers say this could be the first competitive county executive race in years. Others believe it's Watson's to lose. Either way, the two candidates have got all summer to convince voters.

What has traditionally been a frenetic sprint from primary to general election will now be a long-distance race, as the six-week intermission between the two elections stretches to a little more than four months. Three of those will be during Maryland's muggy summer, when many people spend more time with beach reads than they do reading about politics.

Political strategists say this year's earlier primary, held June 24 instead of in September, will impact planning and strategy in the county executive race.

"For people who didn't have a primary, it's really the starting point," said Rachael Rice, president of Democratic fundraising and political strategy firm Rice Consulting. "This is when the campaign gets real for them, when the rubber hits the road."

"I think the message is, you can't take the summer off now," said Herb Sweren, president of bipartisan consulting and technology group CampaignON Technology.

Summer fundraising

Despite the earlier date and change in timeline, the fundamental tenets of running a campaign — fundraising and getting the word out to voters — won't change for Watson and Kittleman.

Both are starting the summer with substantial campaign coffers that they are unlikely to deplete over the next few months.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, filed June 13, Kittleman has $320,367.57 to spend in the months ahead, and Watson has $754,936.48 — an unprecedented figure in the race for Howard County executive.

Rice, who specializes in fundraising and whose firm has done design work in previous years for Ulman's county executive campaigns, said changes to national campaign finance laws could benefit a candidate like Watson.

In April, the Supreme Court struck down a rule limiting aggregate political donations from an individual or business during a campaign cycle. For Maryland, the ruling led to a State Board of Elections decision to drop the former aggregate limit of $10,000.

In a year when Howard's Democratic county executive has been raising funds for a gubernatorial campaign, those limits could have affected the Democratic contender for Howard County executive.

Now, "people who had maxed out on Ken" can still give to Watson, Rice said.

Ulman's top-of-the-ticket visibility could potentially give Watson a boost as well, Rice added.

"Possibly, there's some people who are getting more politically active because they see Ken with the opportunity of being lieutenant governor — and perhaps they're more inclined to give than they would have been," she said.

But Rice said Watson's more than 2-to-1 financial advantage didn't rule out victory for Kittleman. She pointed to former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor's recent primary loss in Virginia to David Brat, a Randolph-Macon College economics professor who had spent $122,000 to Cantor's $5 million.

"I don't know if it's as important how much you raise as how smart you spend it," she said.

Sweren said the longer run-up to the general election gives candidates more time to "replenish [their] fundraising and get [their] voice out there."

Pounding the pavement

Despite the potential to raise more cash ahead of the general election, strategists said it's unlikely either candidate would launch a TV campaign until the fall.

"We're constantly getting bombarded with messaging and advertising, and generally because of their budgets, [candidates] don't want to spend their money to be on air just a little bit" throughout the summer, Rice said. "You have to saturate for it to have an impact" — which means it's likely Watson and Kittleman will wait to run TV ads until mid-September, or even October.

Dave Myers, a political consultant for Core Strategies, a statewide Republican political strategy firm, predicted the race would start to heat up around August, when school starts up again and people head back to work.

Myers said he thought both candidates would invest in television ads.

"Going based off of what I've seen in other counties, TV has definitely been a big chunk of what campaigns are spending their money on," he said.

Social media will also continue to be a core part of the county executive campaign, Myers said, adding that there has been "a much higher social media emphasis in both campaigns" than before.

As of Monday, Watson had 1,568 Twitter followers and 2,612 page likes on Facebook, to Kittleman's 1,811 Twitter followers and 2,844 Facebook likes.

Myers, Rice and Sweren all said they thought the summer would be a lot more focused on taking advantage of the warm weather, long days and abundant outdoor events to get face time with voters.

"Door-to-door, going to events and reaching out — I think all of that stays the same and that gets egged up a little bit throughout the summer," Sweren said.

"Knocking on doors and meeting with voters costs nothing but time, and they've got the time to do it," Rice said. "I think any candidate who wants to have a shot at this needs to keep doing those inexpensive activities."

Keeping their cards close

Watson and Kittleman are staying mum on the specifics of their summer strategies. But both say they expect an active 4 1/2 months of campaigning.

"Going forward, I will continue to be out in the neighborhoods talking about keeping the progress going in Howard County with regard to education, public safety and jobs, and I do that by simply being out every night in neighborhoods throughout the county, whether it's a community event, house party, or knocking on doors," Watson said.

"From kickoff day to election day, our campaign is about grassroots contact with citizens, and the summer is a wonderful opportunity to be with the people of Howard County talking about what they want to see in the future."

Watson, who has faced competition in her two previous general election races for the County Council as a member from Howard's only traditional swing district, said this year's campaign strategy "doesn't seem at all different than a normal, typical campaign."

She declined to speculate on whether Ulman's position on the ticket might help her campaign, though she said she wanted to build on the county executive's policies from the past eight years.

"Even though I am my own person and I have different ideas than [Ulman] does, I will be building on many of the progressive things he's done in education, public safety, economic development," she said.

Kittleman said he was feeling energized as summer begins. He said internal polls had him leading by four points, and "we feel like our fundraising is doing well."

Now that the primaries are past, he said, Republican Party candidates could unify and move forward.

"I know who will be on the ticket with me in District 1, 2 and 5," he said. "I'm excited about that."

He said he'd campaign, for the most part, in the same way as he always has.

"I've run a lot of races in the past, since 1998, and we're going to continue to do what we always have done," he said. "We're going to go to every corner of the county and meet as many people as we can possibly meet."

He said he didn't think Ulman's candidacy would have a ripple effect on the county executive race.

"Howard County has a long reputation of looking at the person, not the party," he said. "I think [the race] is going to be dependent upon the two candidates, and who people think they can trust as a leader for the next four years."

For Watson and Kittleman, one thing's for certain: They will be out in full force on the Fourth of July. This year, parades will be thinner without primary candidates in the mix.

"That's a really fun day in Howard County, and our campaign and volunteers will be out in full force," Watson said.

Kittleman said he planned to walk with the Precision Lawn Chair Marching Dads — a group of boxer-clad fathers who have made it a tradition to perform lawn-chair tricks in the River Hill Fourth of July Parade — as he has in previous years.

"I'm looking forward to that, it's one of the things I enjoy the most every year," he said. "I'm not going to change just because I'm a candidate."