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.
"And as governor, I'll deliver health care reform to the people of Maryland, no excuses," Gansler says in one ad.
Gansler doesn't mention that Brown was in charge of implementing health reform in the state, but his strategists are poised to make the point for him.
"The lieutenant governor is going to be held accountable for a record of failure, and the health care exchange is a dramatic, real-time example of that," said Gansler's strategist, Bill Knapp. "We're going to make it clear to voters that he was in charge of it, he did nothing to fix it, he dropped the ball, he's had no accountably, and no transparency."
In response, Brown's campaign pulled out one of its highest-profile allies, 2012 Obama for America campaign manager Jim Messina, to defend Brown to the media in light of Gansler's attacks.
In a statement released to reporters this week, Messina said, "Taking a page out of the Republican playbook, Doug Gansler has made false attacks and tried to tear down Obamacare, rather than working to find solutions. While Doug Gansler sat on the sidelines, Anthony Brown took on the challenges of Maryland's health exchange and today more than 313,000 Marylanders now have access to quality, affordable health care. True leadership is finding solutions, and that is Anthony Brown's record."
Gansler and Brown are not the only two candidates to snipe at each other. Mizeur has criticized Brown's policies regarding women as "lip service" and, in the legislature, rebuked the O'Malley-Brown administration for not providing more transparency on how much the state has spent on its health exchange website.
On Monday, two Republican candidates for governor, Del. Ron George and Harford County Executive David R. Craig, held a joint event to offer their own criticism of Brown on the health exchange. Republicans have clashed among themselves over who should take credit for economic ideas, but the tone of the GOP primary contest is markedly different.
"They're really going at it on the other side," George said. "One's trying to hold his ground, the other's trying to make up ground."
Gansler campaign aides say they believe their strategy is already working, based on an internal poll they released in part to the media on Monday.
Morrill, the Democratic strategist, suggests that the negativity could backfire.
"When you wind up having negatives balancing negatives, then you can have the potential for a candidate with a strong positive message … who can really sweep through the race," he said.
Historically, Maryland's Democratic primary contests have not been cantankerous. Morrill worked on what was arguably the last hostile one, the 1994 campaign that led to the nomination of Parris N. Glendening. That year, after Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg watched his front-runner status slip, he launched a series of negative ads against Glendening, questioning his fiscal management as Prince George's County executive, for instance.
Glendening eventually won the nomination and the general election.
The former governor has not endorsed a candidate in this year's race, but has been watching as the fight between Gansler and Brown grows increasingly negative.
"Between now and the primary," Glendening said, "the best one can hope for is that it doesn't get worse."