Maryland's unexpectedly close race for governor is drawing an unexpected level of national attention.
With Election Day just a week away, high-profile national political figures are again headed to Maryland to stump for the candidates. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be in Glen Burnie Tuesday on behalf of Republican Larry Hogan, while former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will rally voters for Democrat Anthony G. Brown on Thursday in College Park.
They're part of a parade of national politicos and an influx of out-of-state cash attempting to sway the race.
"It didn't start that way, but it certainly has become a race of national interest," said Donald F. Norris, chair of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"It's because of Larry Hogan's surprisingly close showing," Norris said. "At the outset, no one gave him a chance."
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1, GOP nominee Hogan has been able to convince national pundits and Republican activists that he has a shot. Democrats have responded in force.
The clash — and the possibility of an upset Republican win — has put more national political figures and resources into this year's contest than is usual for Maryland, experts said.
Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst who tracks governors' races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, reclassified Maryland's contest this month from one that's "likely" to have a Democratic victor to a state that's merely leaning Democratic. Now Duffy says she'll need to consider whether to declare the race a "tossup."
She said a recent television ad by the Republican Governors Association captures what has catapulted Hogan into what many now see as a competitive race. The spot highlights taxes and fees raised during Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, then labels Brown, the lieutenant governor, "the second string for O'Malley's third high-tax term."
"A lot of voters view this as another term for O'Malley, but they're not ready for a third O'Malley term," Duffy said.
John Bullock, an assistant political science professor at Towson University, put it this way: "You've had one party rule for the last eight years, and oftentimes when you have that, there is a desire [for] change."
The national governors associations for the two parties have helped to fuel an ad war, together dumping more than $1.5 million into television spots for the race.
On Monday, a national political action committee funded entirely by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced it would spend $500,000 on television ads in the Washington suburbs to remind voters Hogan was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
"In Maryland, we believe that the NRA's endorsement of Mr. Hogan is a huge liability," said Stu Loeser, spokesman for the Bloomberg-funded Independence USA PAC. Across the country, the PAC is buying $25 million worth of ads in the midterm elections.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has appeared at a rally for Brown, and former president Bill Clinton has hosted two fundraisers for him. Hillary Clinton's appearance at the get-out-the vote event for Brown on Thursday is expected to help draw more than 1,000 people. The Brown campaign expects a separate fundraiser with her to raise more than $1 million.
Brown campaign spokesman Justin Schall said the visits from the Clintons have more to do with Brown's relationship to the powerful political family. He scoffed at the suggestion the national attention implies Brown's campaign is faltering.
"That is Republicans' wishful thinking," Schall said. "There is a lot of noise out there, and I think the only thing that matters is getting your voters to the polls."
Hogan has had some help from high-profile Republicans to get that done.
Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. homeland security secretary, hosted an event for Hogan this month. Christie, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, is visiting Maryland on Hogan's behalf for the third time.
A Republican political action committee released a poll Monday that showed Brown leading Hogan by just 46 percent to 44 percent, a 2-percentage point lead that was within the poll's margin of error. The survey was paid for by the Maryland, My Maryland PAC and conducted by the nonpartisan Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, an Annapolis firm.
It puts the race closer than any public nonpartisan polling, including The Baltimore Sun's poll, published Oct. 12, that showed Brown with a 7-point lead.
"The race is dead even. We saw this in several polls," Hogan campaign spokesman Adam Dubitsky said. "What Christie always said is they don't play in long shots, they don't play in landslides. And what they see here is Hogan's ability to win this race."
Not all political analysts consider Maryland's race to be that competitive. The Rothenberg Political Report says a Democrat is favored to win Maryland's gubernatorial contest. An Internet survey, conducted by YouGov for The New York Times and CBS news, showed Brown with a whopping 13-point lead, larger than any other public polling has suggested.
High-profile surrogates and national groups have campaigned on behalf of Maryland's gubernatorial candidates before, but not with the same frequency nor as close to Election Day.
In 2010, Obama and Bill Clinton each campaigned for O'Malley. The Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association each invested in the race, though the Republicans slashed funding for their candidate, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., just four days before early voting began.
Willis cautioned that the appearance of political stars this year may be less about Maryland's candidates and more about 2016 presidential bids.
"There's multiple reasons why someone like a Christie would come here. We're a donor state," Willis said. "People come to Maryland to raise money, mostly from the DC suburbs. ... They're building their own bridges, for their own politics."
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said national groups took interest Maryland in part because Hogan's campaign focused on pocketbook issues at a time when the message was very effective.
"He has narrowed it to the point where it isn't a lost cause, which is significant in Maryland," Kromer said. "For Larry Hogan, it's been a perfect storm."
During O'Malley's two terms, Democrats settled a lot of social issues that would be toxic to a Republican's statewide campaign, she said. Lawmakers approved same-sex marriage, passed a strict gun-control law and approved in-state tuition for some immigrants in the country illegally. With those issues resolved, Kromer said, Hogan could avoid talking about divisive wedge topics.
"He's been able to only focus on economic issues, which Republicans have an advantage on," she said. "He can have all economic issues, all the time."