Two Republican candidates shook up the GOP's placid race for governor Wednesday by asking Maryland election officials to investigate one of their rivals, saying that his use of a conservative advocacy group to raise money violates state law.
Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Del. Ron George joined forces at an Annapolis news conference to say that Larry Hogan's Change Maryland LLC had illegally coordinated its activities with Hogan's official election committee.
"One man is not following the same rules the rest of us followed," said George.
Craig urged the State Board of Elections to act well before the June 24 primary election. If Hogan were to win the primary and the board were later to conclude that he broke the law, it could hurt the party in November, Craig said.
"I'm very concerned for the Republicans of the state of Maryland," Craig said.
Adam Dubitsky, a spokesman for Hogan's campaign, denied any violation. "The entire premise of these allegations by two desperate campaigns is utterly absurd and patently false," he said.
Dubitsky said the campaign had checked with the elections board and followed its "explicit guidance" before it legally acquired Change Maryland, which Hogan formed in 2011 as a limited liability corporation. The spokesman said Hogan's rivals don't understand election law.
"Larry Hogan for Governor owns Change Maryland and has since he became a candidate," Dubitsky said.
Craig and George said a fourth GOP candidate, Charles County business executive Charles Lollar, had been invited to join them at the news conference but declined. Bob Carlstrom, a spokesman for Lollar, declined to comment on the fray. "Charles just decided not to get involved in that," Carlstrom said.
Hogan launched his campaign committee in January, when he formally entered the race. He later announced Boyd Rutherford, an Ehrlich administration Cabinet secretary, as his running mate.
A filing with the elections board shows the Hogan-Rutherford Committee to Change Maryland paid $18,164 for the assets of Change Maryland on April 7. Dubitsky said that represented the first payments on a purchase price of $79,720 agreed to on Jan. 13. The Change Maryland website now carries the authority line of Larry Hogan for Governor.
Jared DeMarinis, director of the campaign finance division of the elections board, said he would review the allegations. He said he would refer them to the office of the state prosecutor if there were a reasonable suspicion of a violation.
The charges came as Hogan, a former Ehrlich administration official, announced that he has cleared the threshold of $258,612 in small individual contributions needed to qualify for public financing of his campaign. If the figure is confirmed by the election board, Hogan would become the first candidate on the Republican side to qualify for public matching funds this year.
If he were to win the primary, Hogan would be eligible to receive $2.6 million in public funds for his general election campaign. In return for that grant, Hogan would have to halt fundraising for his own campaign, DeMarinis said.
Craig and George both said Wednesday that they do not expect to reach the threshold soon enough to claim matching funds in the filing due next week. They contended that the election board should refuse to count toward the goal any money that Hogan raised with the involvement of Change Maryland.
From 2011 until early this year, Change Maryland's emails, website and Facebook page served as Hogan's main platform for criticizing the O'Malley administration. Dubitsky said Change Maryland was primarily bankrolled by Hogan himself and never made a profit.
In a letter to the board, Craig and George said that since it started, Change Maryland's resources had been used to "promote its chairman, garner media attention and erect a digital infrastructure that continues to operate."
Nevertheless, the state did not require Change Maryland to disclose its fundraising or spending because it wasn't an official campaign committee before it was absorbed into the Hogan for Governor effort.
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said Change Maryland was an "incredibly effective way for [Hogan] to get his name out there." But Eberly said he hasn't seen an obvious violation.
"The spirit of the law may have been violated, but the letter of the law may not have," he said. "What it really points to are clear loopholes in Maryland campaign finance law."
Eberly said the fight over Change Maryland won't help the Republicans unify after the primary — a necessity in a state dominated by Democrats. George and Craig, he said, are "creating an issue the Democratic nominee will pick up the day after the primary if Hogan should be the nominee."
Until Wednesday, the race for the Republican nomination had been a collegial contest, at least outwardly. But the news conference exposed some simmering tensions, notably over Hogan's absence at many of the events to which all of the candidates were invited.
George said that by his count Hogan had attended only about three or four of the roughly 21 forums to which the Republican gubernatorial candidates were invited this year.
"Doing these forums helps the local Republican clubs. It helps to fundraise," George said. "There's a little personal feeling about that because we've worked hard in our campaigns."
Dubitsky disputed George's numbers, but conceded that Hogan hasn't put as much emphasis on such appearances as the other candidates.
"The objective all along is to be out campaigning all over the state," he said. "We put a premium on meeting voters rather than debating among ourselves."