Badly outspent and behind in the polls, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous needs to turn in a big performance in today’s televised debate with Gov. Larry Hogan. It’s a tough task — Mr. Hogan is popular and a good debater — but it’s possible. Here are five things he needs to do today:
1. Introduce himself. Mr. Jealous has been defined over the summer in many voters’ eyes by a barrage of negative ads from Governor Hogan and his supporters casting him as risky, extreme and even dangerous. He’s got a much different story to tell about his family’s roots in Baltimore, his prodigious accomplishments (the fact that he’s a Rhodes Scholar somehow has not come up in the Hogan ads), his leadership of the NAACP, his work in Maryland on issues including marriage equality and the death penalty, and his experience in the new economy, helping to grow socially responsible businesses as a venture capitalist. He needs to give voters a sense of where he’s coming from and why he felt called to run for governor — much as Mr. Hogan did four years ago.
2. Explain, in sound bite form, what his campaign is about. If position papers decided elections, Mr. Jealous would win in a landslide. Every day, he seems to be coming out with a new policy proposal, from single-payer health care to a sales tax cut — so many that average voters can’t keep up, much less stitch them into some cohesive rationale for his candidacy. Four years ago, Mr. Hogan showed how successful a simple message could be if it taps into what voters are thinking. We’re not sure what Mr. Jealous’ equivalent of “Change Maryland for the Better” would be, and that’s a problem.
3. Attack Hogan carefully. Maryland voters by and large think Governor Hogan is a nice guy who’s doing a good job running the state, and no matter how well Mr. Jealous performs on the debate stage, he’s probably not going to change that. (Mr. Hogan does have a temper and can be snarky, but he’s kept that well under wraps for the last couple of years.) Mr. Jealous’ best bet is not to try to paint Mr. Hogan as a bad governor, just not the one Maryland needs in 2018. He needs to talk about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, the rising costs of health care and higher education, and other sources of voter anxiety, and he must make the case that Governor Hogan hasn’t been bold enough in addressing them.
4. Bring up Trump strategically. This is a corollary to point No. 3 — if Maryland Democrats haven’t convinced Maryland voters yet that Larry Hogan is Donald Trump’s mini-me, they’re not going to. But they can make the case that Maryland faces real threats from the Trump administration on the environment, public education, the treatment of immigrants and other issues and that the state needs to be taking a stronger role in opposing him. Mr. Hogan has made assorted statements to distance himself from Mr. Trump during the last two years, but Mr. Jealous can argue that Maryland needs to be more active in setting policies to counteract those coming from Washington, as California has.
5. Don’t let Hogan get under his skin. Mr. Jealous has shown flashes of impatience when pressed — for example, the time when he used the f-word in response to a reporter’s question he didn’t like — and Mr. Hogan is quick enough on his feet to needle his opponent in ways that could push him off balance. Mr. Jealous needs a crisp response to being called a socialist, because he can be pretty sure that’s going to come up, and he needs to be able to calmly counter Mr. Hogan’s assertions that his plans are too big and too expensive. Given all Mr. Hogan and his allies have done to make voters think Mr. Jealous is a risky choice, he can’t afford to look flustered, much less lose his cool.
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