For the many Democratic voters in Maryland who remain undecided in the gubernatorial primary, the leading candidates might seem strikingly similar: they all want to take the state in a more progressive direction, and they generally agree on the policies to get there.
But for all their similarities, they would run very different campaigns against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the general election.
A combative progressive such as former NAACP chief Ben Jealous could fire up the left — but encourage the state’s many centrist Democrats to cross party lines to back the popular Hogan. A more centrist, establishment candidate, such as Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, could offer a more traditional contest — but draw less enthusiasm from Democratic activists.
“It’s really a choice for voters on stylistic differences and personality,” said Melissa Deckman, chairwoman of the political science department at Washington College.
“The style of the campaigns will be very different depending on who wins. ... Do we go with someone who is potentially exciting and can rile up the base? Or do we go with someone who is a known quantity?”
Polls show Jealous and Baker in a statistical tie heading into the primary on Tuesday. The candidates agree broadly on policy: They say the state should raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, legalize marijuana, reform the criminal justice system and make college free for many more people in Maryland.
But in matchups against Hogan, they would run dramatically different campaigns — and draw different responses from the governor. That’s partly because Baker and Hogan, both from Prince George’s County, have known each other for years and remain friendly, while Jealous is a political outsider, an organizer and advocate who has had less contact with the governor.
“There’s going to be substantial difference on style,” said former Gov. Parris Glendening, who has known Hogan for more than 30 years. “There’s no doubt about that in my mind.
“If you’re looking at this thing and say, ‘I really want an exciting, go-for-the-jugular, tear-him-apart debate,’ you would go for [Ben] Jealous,” he said. “If you want a substantive policy debate, a tell-me-what-the-future-is-going-to-be-like debate, you go with [Rushern] Baker.”
Glendening has endorsed Baker.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, who backs state Sen. Richard Madaleno, also sees contrasts.
“A Hogan-Baker contest would be the most traditional partisan matchup, where Baker would do everything in his power to organize a Democratic coalition, Hogan would mobilize the Republicans to turn out, and they would both fight for independents,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.
“A Hogan-Jealous matchup becomes much more of an outsider-versus-insider race,” Raskin said. “Jealous would have both the advantages and disadvantages of not coming from elected office in the state … His challenge would be more consolidating the Democratic base behind him.”
Hogan plans to run the same race no matter who he faces, his top campaign strategist said.
“His job is to run the campaign that he wants to run,” strategist Russ Schriefer said. The Democrats’ “personalities will be different and they will be more or less aggressive depending on who they are. But it doesn’t change the core message that the governor is out there saying.”
Baker, a two-term county executive and former state lawmaker, pitches himself as a leader who can turn around a struggling jurisdiction and provide a steady hand at state government. Most of Maryland’s Democratic leaders have lined up behind him. He tells voters he can deliver to Maryland the economic growth, reduction in crime and improvement in education he has overseen in Prince George’s County.
Jealous, a first-time candidate, pitches himself as a civil rights leader and organizer who can persuade the state’s establishment to embrace a progressive agenda. He was a top surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and Sanders has campaigned alongside Jealous. Jealous has also rolled out celebrity endorsements from rising national Democratic stars, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
Baker’s campaign says he would provide Hogan with a substantial and realistic policy debate, whereas a contest against Jealous would give Hogan the opportunity to charge that Democrats want to spend more than the state could afford.
“It’s a record of results versus rhetoric,” Baker campaign spokeswoman Madeleine Russak said.
The Jealous campaign, meanwhile, says he would give voters a much clearer choice between him and Hogan.
“You get a candidate who has put in place bold and detailed plans to take the state in a different direction than what we have with Larry Hogan,” Jealous campaign spokesman Kevin Harris said. “There’s a bold break from the incrementalism that we’ve seen.”
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College, echoed the candidates’ assessments of how they would match up against Hogan.
“In Baker, you’ve got someone who has demonstrated a pretty pragmatic approach to governing,” Eberly said. “Baker is not beholden to any wing of the party. In many respects, he’s kind of like Hogan. He’s a little low-key. I would expect a contest between them to be cordial, because that’s really who they are.”
Eberly said Jealous’ speaking style and his community organizer intensity would contrast starkly with Hogan, who is seen by voters an an affable and moderate Republican.
“With Jealous, you’re going to see much of that sort of Bernie Sanders-style campaigning, which is very aspirational: ‘if we dream big, this is what we’re going to get,’ ” Eberly said. “Jealous would be a bit more passionate, and probably a bit more confrontational.”
Jealous supporters agree.
“We need someone who can very clearly take the fight to Larry Hogan on questions on areas where he is clearly vulnerable, on education and health care,” said Sean Johnson, political director of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The organization has endorsed Jealous.
“When Ben Jealous is on the stump, you know exactly what he stands for,” Johnson said.
Jay Hutchins, acting executive director of Maryland Working Families, said Jealous’ “bold platform” would resonate with an energized Democratic base whose turnout is crucial to winning in November.
“He offers the strongest contrast to Larry Hogan,” Hutchins said.
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh backs Baker. He says a race between Baker and Hogan would be a showdown of policy records on education and making government work for people.
Baker “will be a nice guy,” Frosh said. “I think he’ll be effective at calling out the governor, but he won’t call him names.”
The candidates also present different weaknesses that Hogan could exploit. Baker’s partial takeover of Prince George’s County schools came with a series of scandals — accusations of grade fixing, hefty raises for administrators and loss of a $6.4 million federal grant for Head Start. Jealous has never held elective office; Hogan could portray him as too extreme and his proposals as too costly for the state.
The frontrunners come from — and would likely appeal to — different generations. Baker is 59; Hogan is 62. Jealous is 45.
Democratic strategist Martha McKenna said Baker’s care for his wife, suffering from early-onset dementia, is the sort of personal story of character that touches voters in the same way as Hogan’s response to his 2015 cancer diagnosis.
“There’s something about those life experiences that resonates,” she said.
Jealous’ policy emphasis on legalizing marijuana and making college free are more likely to resonate with younger voters and draw a sharper contrast with Hogan.
A Baltimore Sun/University Poll poll of likely Democratic voters this month showed Baker and Jealous tied at 16 percent. Madaleno, lawyer Jim Shea and Krish Vignarajah, a former policy aide to Michelle Obama, all garnered 4 percent. Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross drew 1 percent.
But with 44 percent undecided, the race remains fluid.
“There could be a third person that wins this thing,” said Deckman, the Washington College political scientist. “There’s some folks who could pull a surprise.”
Each of the candidates offers a different style.
Madaleno, for instance, has been the governor’s chief critic in the Democrat-dominated General Assembly. Analysts and supporters say his deep, detailed policy chops and ability to get under Hogan’s skin could enliven debates.
“Rich’s experience in Annapolis would go greatly in his favor,” said former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.
Gansler, who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014, said Madaleno would be particularly adept at harnessing anti-Trump sentiment among Democratic voters. The Sun poll showed Madaleno’s supporters were most likely to dislike Hogan and Trump.
“Rich has been one of the leaders in Annapolis — and in the state of Maryland — in pushing back against the unconstitutional and morally repugnant policies of President Trump.”
A Shea-Hogan matchup would pit a moderate Democratic businessman against a moderate Republican businessman.
Towson University political scientist John Bullock, a Shea supporter, said Shea could win back the centrist Democrats who went for Hogan four years ago.
“Going back to 2014, you could see that there was a challenge reaching out to moderates,” Bullock said. “Many of the Democrats have tried to tie Hogan to Trump and make him seem more right-wing, which hasn’t worked because Hogan doesn’t come across as right-wing. He comes across as a moderate.”
In some ways, Vignarajah, 38, would draw the sharpest contrast with Hogan — she’s a woman 24 years younger, a minority, an immigrant and the mother of a young child. Republicans have pointed out that Vignarajah has voted in the District of Columbia, and would likely ask a court to throw out her candidacy on residency grounds if she won the primary.
Ross, 46, is an Obama administration alumnus with several first-in-the-country policy proposals: lending working families money for child care, banning gun sales unless they have smart triggers or allowing inmates to vote from jail. Against Hogan, he could cast himself as a younger outsider with new ideas.
Hogan’s campaign staff says the governor will continue to remind voters of his high job approval ratings and caution that any Democrat would take the state backward. The message won’t shift no matter whom he faces.
“They’re all different shades of blue,” Schriefer said.