The first negative advertisements in the Democratic primary campaign for governor hit airwaves this week, pushing a feisty political fight that's simmered for months into prime time.
Already, the race among Democrats for the governor's mansion is poised to be Maryland's nastiest in two decades, experts said. And voters can expect the candidates with enough money to use it increasingly on negative messages until the June 24 primary.
"It's a surprise that it didn't happen earlier," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has released two television spots and a radio ad that bring his attack on the failed Maryland health exchange to more voters than ever. They implicitly criticize the leadership of front-runner Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who oversaw the state's health care reform effort for the O'Malley administration.
Until now, the television ads in the governor's race featured rosy biographies of the candidates and their policies. Gansler's new ones set off a flurry of accusations through news releases between the two campaigns, with Brown suggesting that Gansler has behaved like a Republican attacking Obamacare, and Gansler shooting back that Brown has dodged responsibility for the flubbed exchange.
Brown's campaign manager, Justin Schall, would not reveal when their campaign plans to hit back in television ads, but made clear it will. "This campaign will not allow a single misleading or false negative attack to go unanswered, but we will choose the time and the place to respond," he said.
Political observers say Gansler's sharpening criticism of Brown — as well as Brown's attempt to appear above the fray — are textbook approaches for both campaigns at this stage of the race.
For the time being, Brown's television advertisements have hewed closely to a typical front-runner approach. He relies on biographical spots that highlight his military service and Ivy League education in major ad buys, which most casual voters see, and lets his campaign staff attack Gansler through the news media, which only the more engaged voters will notice.
Del. Heather Mizeur, who trails both Brown and Gansler in Democratic primary polls and in fundraising, has not released any television ads. She told a crowd in Baltimore on Thursday night that "what I hear in living rooms and community centers across the state are people ready for politicians to remain positive."
While many voters echo that thought, several experts noted that negative campaigning often pays off for an underdog, as long as it's handled well.
Public polling earlier this year and internal surveys taken more recently by the campaigns show a wide swath of Democratic voters still undecided. Gansler, according to Norris and others, needs to do something either to get more of those fickle voters in his camp or raise doubts about Brown among his current supporters.
But Gansler must tread carefully. "The trick is to not wind up being identified as exclusively negative — that does not work with voters," said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic strategist.
And, analysts say, Gansler must not appear overly aggressive in a way that could damage his credibility with black voters, who are likely to represent more than a third of Maryland's Democratic primary electorate. A Baltimore Sun poll in February found that Brown — who would be the state's first black governor — had a commanding 61 percent of the African-American vote.
The three candidates agree in broad terms about many issues, although Mizeur has staked ground further to the left by backing legalized marijuana and paid leave for all workers, among other policies. Gansler and Brown support decriminalizing marijuana, investing more in schools and taking action to reduce the number of ex-offenders who return to jail, but they differ on some tax issues.
Animosity between the Gansler and Brown camps has seethed behind the scenes since last summer. Gansler publicly accused the Brown campaign of leaking negative stories to reporters and decried the use of Brown's political tracker — who follows Gansler nearly everywhere — as a dirty trick. Brown's camp repeatedly accused Gansler of acting like a Republican, and produced Web videos suggesting that Gansler favors business interests over the needs of children.
Then, in January, Gansler's supporters filed a lawsuit over Brown's fundraising plans. In April, Brown's campaign filed a formal complaint with the Board of Elections over Gansler's efforts to raise cash.
Each campaign has also launched a website dedicated to attacking the other candidate.
Gansler's attack site — didanthonybrowncomecleantoday.com — keeps a running clock on how long it will take for Brown to rewrite a portion of his campaign website that says Brown "positioned Maryland as the national leader" on health care reform. Brown's attack site — factcheckmd.com — rebuts claims that Gansler makes at public events about statistics and policy ideas.
Gansler has cast himself both as a fighter and an underdog, and his ads broadcast messages his campaign has been sending for months.
In his recently released spots, Gansler calls health care "a right," and faults the current state administration for the "mess" of a health exchange, whose rollout was among the worst in the country.