If the first political ad for the general election is any indication, the battle for the governor's mansion may take a negative tone, some political observers say.
Democrat Anthony G. Brown released a 30-second TV spot Friday that takes a swipe at his opponent's economic policies, saying Republican Larry Hogan would "take Maryland families backwards" if elected governor. Brown has put at least $23,000 toward airing the ad in the Baltimore market this weekend, according to reports filed with regulatory agencies.
Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said he had expected Brown to take a more positive tone early in the campaign. The advertising, along with some of the rhetoric coming out of the Brown campaign, points to a highly negative campaign ahead, he said.
"You're going to have the Democrats do everything they can to make this not be about the economy but Hogan as an unacceptable risk and extreme," Eberly said.
While Brown may be the first to hit the airwaves in the general election, his ad comes on the heels of three negative Web videos put out by Hogan's campaign ridiculing Brown as "incompetent."
The negativity of Hogan's videos struck even a conservative commentator, Towson University political communications professor Richard Vatz, as tone deaf and likely counterproductive for Hogan.
Brown won his party's hard-fought primary nomination in a landslide in June. Since then, both Brown and Hogan have been silent on the airwaves during the summer vacation months. The general election is Nov. 4.
Hogan spokesman Adam Dubitsky said Friday that the Republicans plan to begin their television campaign Monday by replaying a positive biographical ad about Hogan from the primary.
Brown's new ad repeats many of the same themes he used in the primary contest, juxtaposing his career as a military officer with some of his policies to raise the minimum wage, to provide prekindergarten for children and to lower the cost of college.
After the narrator praises Brown, ominous music and gray tones shift. Then the narrator begins describing Hogan as a candidate who doesn't back those policies, and concludes that Hogan is "the wrong direction for Maryland."
Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that message tracks with what he heard from Brown last week when he spoke to the Maryland Association of Counties in Ocean City.
"I think this will be a campaign theme, and I expect we'll see a lot more of it," he said. "He's going to be aiming that message at important subgroups within the Democratic Party in Maryland."
Dubitsky criticized Brown for airing the first negative ad, and suggested that Brown's campaign was nervous about polling showing Hogan closing the gap.
Brown enjoys both a fundraising and a registration advantage in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.
Hogan, meanwhile, has chosen to use Maryland's public financing system, which sharply curtails how much his campaign can spend on the race, limiting him to $2.6 million.
The Maryland Republican Party released a poll Friday afternoon, and the survey of 500 likely voters by Republican political consulting company OnMessage put Brown and Hogan in a virtual dead heat.
According to the survey, 45 percent backed Brown, 42 percent backed Hogan, 4 percent backed Libertarian candidate Shawn Quinn and 9 percent were undecided. The margin of error is 4.3 percentage points.
The Democratic Governors Association released a statement decrying the poll as a "sham" and pointed to three recent nonpartisan polls that, on average, put Brown at 50 percent of the vote and Hogan at 37 percent.
OnMessage pollster Wes Anderson said the close race was "shocking and not something that we expected to see."
Anderson said 75 percent of likely voters believe taxes in the state are too high, which he said contributed to Hogan's higher-than-expected support. He said the survey showed that 32 percent of likely voters had a favorable view of Hogan, but 42 percent would vote for him.
"That tells you that what's driving votes here is not necessarily the campaign, it's the environment," Anderson said. "What is it that's in the environment right now that's so toxic for Democrats? It's taxes."
Hogan needs strong early poll numbers if he hopes to attract outside money from the Republican Governors Association and other conservative groups that typically overlook contests in deep blue Maryland.
Norris said those groups will examine any partisan poll skeptically. "He's got to have legitimate poll numbers. He can't have poll numbers that are made up. The RGA is smarter than that and the donors are smarter than that," he said.
Also on Friday, the Maryland Democratic Party continued its campaign against Hogan and began distributing old newspaper articles about Hogan under the banner "Backward Larry Hogan, same old backward Republican agenda."
The Democrats unearthed a 1980 newspaper article in which Hogan takes credit for suggesting to his father, then the Prince George's county executive, that the county issue an executive order banning abortions at county hospitals except to save the life of the mother.