Md. governor's race: Let the (ad) campaign begin

Maryland’s gubernatorial campaign has been going on for a long time, with candidates appearing at forums, house parties and other events from one corner of the state to the other for more than a year. But with less than a month to go until the primary, things are getting serious. How can you tell? The sleeping giant that is the Larry Hogan re-election campaign just woke up.

It’s not that Mr. Hogan has been inattentive to the challenge of trying to become the first Republican to win a second term as Maryland governor since Theodore McKeldin. He’s been walking a finely calibrated line in managing his relationship with the profoundly unpopular Republican president. During the last legislative session, he embraced causes important to the state’s Democratic majority, from gun control to protecting the Affordable Care Act. And he’s made full use of the power of his office to bolster his standing — for example, by traveling to the Bay Bridge to announce an end to E-Z Pass fees right before Memorial Day weekend. And he’s been raising money. Lots and lots of money.

So much money that he was able to start buying television air time in both the Baltimore and Washington media markets for a minute-long ad this week and, given the money he already has and the pace at which he’s raising it, could probably continue doing so until the November election.

We could quibble with some of the details of the claims Mr. Hogan makes in the ad — Maryland wasn’t nearly the hellscape he describes before the last election, nor is his record on tax reduction quite as impressive as he makes it sound.

The same guy who stood in the pouring rain to accompany Mr. Hogan’s misleading 2014 ads about Maryland’s stormwater management fees is back for an encore in 2018. But the broad themes reflect what made Mr. Hogan successful in the last election and have kept him popular since. Maryland was looking for a change, and Mr. Hogan has provided it without excessive partisan conflict. His presence in Baltimore after the 2015 riots was reassuring, and his successful battle with cancer really did deepen his bond with people across Maryland.

Mr. Hogan’s initial ad is, essentially, a bet on the proposition that people are happy with the direction of the state and aren’t looking for change or even, particularly, for new ideas. It’s an effort to frame the election as a referendum on the incumbent, not as a contest between him and a Democrat. (In contrast to his approach four years ago, he doesn’t even use the word “Democrat” in the ad, even the parts describing job losses and tax hikes before he arrived in Annapolis, and the only appearance of the word “Republican” is in a Washington Post headline that briefly flashes on the bottom of the screen.)

It’s not completely fair to evaluate the Democrats running against Mr. Hogan based on their campaign ads. Many of them have spelled out detailed agendas in policy papers posted on their websites, and increasingly, they are using social media to communicate with voters. But despite the fragmentation of the media landscape and technology that allows viewers to skip ads, television commercials remain the most prominent way nearly all campaigns communicate their message. It’s certainly where they tend to spend most of their money. Consequently, such ads tend to be telling about the nature of the election and how candidates perceive the mood of the electorate.

The ads produced by the Democrats running for the chance to oppose him reflect the difficult task they each face. Most had little name recognition at the start of the campaign, and they all have to start out by introducing themselves to voters.

Attorney Jim Shea’s first campaign ad is almost entirely biographical, highlighting his experience as an attorney, as chairman of the University System’s Board of Regents and as a transit advocate.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker has the good fortune to have U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who has endorsed him, to provide an introduction. His first ad curiously parallels Mr. Hogan’s, in that it says Prince George’s County was deeply troubled before he showed up (certainly a defensible proposition) but has turned the corner under his leadership.

Former Obama administration official Krish Vignarajah is not subtle about pitching her potential as a woman to provide a perspective that’s missing in Maryland (black and white photos of the men serving in statewide office and the congressional delegation appear on the screen while she breastfeeds her baby). But she also highlights an immigrant story that runs from her parents’ arrival with $200 to her position advising Michelle Obama.

Author and entrepreneur Alec Ross achieves a similar effect in an online ad (he is, so far, eschewing television) that chronicles his rise from West Virginia coal country to the Obama administration, with a stop along the way as a Baltimore City schoolteacher.

State Sen. Rich Madaleno runs through his resume of accomplishments as a member of the General Assembly, including work on gun control, funding Planned Parenthood and providing school lunches for more children.

Ben Jealous’ first ad focuses on his leadership of the NAACP and his work on key local issues including marriage equality, ending the death penalty and passing Maryland’s version of the Dream Act. (A seventh major Democratic candidate, Valerie Ervin, who was Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s running mate before his sudden death, has only been in the race for a matter of days and has not yet produced an ad.)

Most of the Democrats don’t offer an agenda that’s anywhere near as specific as the anti-tax message that propelled Mr. Hogan to office in 2014. Mr. Shea’s first ad makes only cursory reference to a desire to improve education. Mr. Baker does the same, plus mentioning his blueprint for health care. Mr. Ross leads the pack in the use of the word “new” in his most prominent campaign ad while enthusiastically proclaiming the need for fresh ideas to confront Maryland’s 21st century challenges. But for specifics, all he mentions is coding classes for elementary school children. Ms. Vignarajah says in her ad that “states with women in government have better schools, better health care and lower incarceration rates. I want all of that for Maryland.” How, she does not say. Mr. Madaleno is somewhat more specific, promising to enact a $15 minimum wage and “fully fund our schools.” Mr. Jealous’ initial ad is something of an outlier in its policy ambitions, if not necessarily specifics, calling for better pay for teachers, an end to mass incarceration and police killings of unarmed civilians, more clean energy and universal, Medicare-for-all health care.

Four years ago, Mr. Hogan ran against one-party control of Annapolis, and eight years before that, Martin O’Malley defeated a sitting governor by attacking his effectiveness and values. This time around, the challengers are all over the map in their answer to the question of why voters should reject a second term for Mr. Hogan. Some barely even try. The closest Mr. Shea gets to criticizing the status quo is a vague promise to “return Maryland to the top.” Mr. Baker doesn’t even do that much. Mr. Madaleno pitches himself as a “fierce critic” of Mr. Hogan, as if the need for that requires no explanation, and says he would take steps the incumbent wouldn’t, like enacting that $15 minimum wage. Ms. Vignarajah repeats what is now her signature line, “They say no man can beat Larry Hogan. Well, I’m no man.” But she identifies no shortcoming for him except, by implication, his gender. Mr. Jealous’ first ad doesn’t even hint at Mr. Hogan’s existence, though a second seeks to tie him to the cold classrooms crisis in Baltimore schools last year. Mr. Ross goes farthest in this regard, seeking to link Mr. Hogan directly to Mr. Trump by highlighting the governor’s appearance with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a Maryland classroom and, in quite a leap, suggesting that the Republican incumbent supports Trump administration policies that would strip the Chesapeake Bay of cleanup funding to pay for the border wall.

What it all boils down to is this: Governor Hogan knows exactly who he is and why he’s running, and most Marylanders do, too. In case they don’t, he’s got the resources and focus to remind them. At this point, none of the Democrats can match that. If anyone is going to emerge from this primary to present a real challenge to the incumbent, he or she is going to have to change that fast. Mr. Hogan clearly isn’t going to sit around and wait for them to figure it out.

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