It will be three years before ballots are cast in Maryland's next election for governor, but half a dozen potential candidates for the office are already asking donors for cash.
At one of the latest fundraising events, Democratic Howard County Executive Ken Ulman was the main attraction and guests paid up to $1,000 each to attend the party in Columbia last week. The invitation, sent by a supporter, stated that Ulman would need the money for "the upcoming gubernatorial election."
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, all Democrats, have held events in recent months. They are widely regarded as possible candidates for governor, though none has said publicly he wants to succeed Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is prevented by law from seeking a third term.
With the governor's mansion up for grabs in 2014, the open seat has prompted the early rush for funds.
"You have to start early. You want to be the strongest candidate when everything shakes out," said Amie Kershner, a veteran fundraiser who is working for Franchot. Brown and Ulman also have hired professional fundraisers.
A hefty balance in the bank account shows that a candidate is serious and helps attract even more money, political analysts say. Also, Maryland campaign finance laws limiting individuals to $10,000 in contributions during a four-year state election cycle means candidates want to reach donors before they are "maxed out."
And there's little downside to starting early because candidates don't have to decide yet just what they are running for, as long it's a state office. Money raised for a Maryland campaign account can be used for any state office — from governor to state delegate — as well county offices. (The rules are different for those seeking federal office, who cannot easily transfer state money for congressional races.)
Several Republicans, notably Harford County Executive David Craig and Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, also have suggested they may run for governor in 2014, but their fundraising hasn't been quite as aggressive.
This coy stretch of the campaign also serves political goals: Voters want elected leaders to be focused on their current jobs, not their future, and officials don't have to admit they are thinking of a switch.
Former Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat who was in the governor's mansion from 1995 to 2003, said he "vehemently" denied that he was running for governor for a year even as he was raising money for the race. "You go through this dance," Glendening said. "You really don't want to say you are running too early."
Announcing prematurely means each action is viewed through a lens of ambition. "You are still serving as county executive," said Glendening, who held that office in Prince George's County when he first ran for governor. "You want your constituents to feel you are doing your job."
Also, politicians like Attorney General Gansler and Comptroller Franchot, who are not term limited in their current jobs, could attract unwanted competition for the office should they decide to seek re-election. "Don't invite people to run for your office," Glendening said. "More than one person has gone up to the line and then backed off."
The reality is, he said, serious candidates need the lead time.
For one thing, Maryland gubernatorial races are expensive. That's due in part to the legacy of Republican fundraiser Dick Hug who became known as the "$6 million man" after raising that amount in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Glendening in 1998.
In the current election cycle, Hug estimates that candidates for governor will need up $6 million just for the primary, which is set for June 2014. The November general election could cost another $10 million per candidate.
"I always advise people, 'Get started early,'" said Hug, who raised money in the last gubernatorial election for former GOP Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "When Ehrlich ran, he never got started early. He got started eight or nine months before."
Ehrlich spent $7 million for the 2010 campaign, but lost to O'Malley by 14 points. O'Malley spent $10 million.
Hug said that for most candidates it's "not hard" to find ways around the state's restrictions. The rules limit donors to $4,000 per candidate in addition to the $10,000 per four-year cycle. Hug noted that spouses can give. In some cases, children can give. And, he said, donors can always write big checks to organizations like the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association. Democrats have similar groups.
"Some of that money will come back to the state," he said.
Hug noted that an early jump is particularly important for candidates such as Howard County's Ulman, who may not be familiar to voters elsewhere. "He's not as well known as the other Democratic candidates who are going to run," Hug said.
Ulman's supporters crammed into the Spear Center ballroom at a Columbia office park Thursday night, sipping drinks and mingling. Many said they were longtime donors. Ryan Frederic, a Republican who attended Ulman's fundraiser, said he was happy to support Ulman no matter what comes next. "So, he's got to have a job. He's going to stay in politics," Frederic said. "Ken's been better than most at being accountable."
"Whether he runs for governor or another office, he's the right guy," he said. "He's the kind of politician I want to see in government. He's not aligned with my ideology, but he's the person I want to see in office."
Ulman said he was "flattered" by the speculation that he might run but would not commit. He has hired Rachael Rice, a well-known fundraiser with statewide connections, to pull in campaign contributions.
Lt. Gov. Brown, another term-limited contender, has held about half a dozen events this year, including one in September at Martin's Valley Mansion in Hunt Valley. The cheapest tickets: $250 according to the invitation. Colleen Martin-Lauer, who raises money for O'Malley, is handing Brown's events.
Marc P. Goldberg, a spokesman for Brown, said he "is fully focused" on his current job.
But others are prodding him. The Frederick News-Post reported that state Sen. Ronald N. Young, a Democrat, introduced Brown at Frederick Rotary Club meeting Wednesday by saying: "I think he's the kind of person we want to see in higher office."
Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for Franchot, said "it is not a secret" that the comptroller is "considering" a gubernatorial run in 2014. "He recognizes that the next election is three years away and the taxpayers of Maryland have hired him to do the job of comptroller and do it well," Shapiro said.
Gansler, who has a reputation as a money-raising machine, is the only one of the four who has not hired a professional fundraiser. Instead, Antigone Davis, a senior adviser in the attorney general's office and a longtime aide, handles his campaign money events on a volunteer basis.
Gansler said that he always holds two fundraisers a year. This year was no different. "My fundraising doesn't at all reflect running for governor," Gansler said. "If I do run, the relevant year will be 2013," Gansler said. "That will be the year that I start, if I in fact decide to run."
Of course, he can afford to wait. In the last public reporting period he showed an eye-popping $2.9 million in his bank account. That was 11 months ago, and Gansler said he hasn't spent any money.
The same report showed that Franchot had $515,000; Ulman had about $449,000 and Brown had $126,000. Republicans Leopold had nearly $424,000 and Craig had $65,000.
All eyes will be on the next reports, which come out January. After that, campaigns can be silent about financing for another year.